The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.
Despite its relatively small size on the human body, the nipple gets a lot of attention. Biologically, the nipple serves two key functions: In women, nipples deliver milk out of the ducts within the breast to babies, and for women and men, they serve as erogenous zones. Check out our list of fascinating facts about this often-misunderstood body part.
1. THE NIPPLE HAS ITS OWN SWEAT GLANDS.
The nipple is the raised bump or protrusion on top of the breast that sits on the circular area known as the areola. The areola is often much larger in circumference than the actual nipple, as it holds small sweat glands called Montgomery glands (named for William Fetherstone Montgomery, an Irish obstetrician who first described them). The sole function of these glands is to secrete fluids during breastfeeding to lubricate the nipple and to produce a scent that attracts the baby to its mother's breast.
2. NIPPLES CAN POKE IN OR OUT.
Not all nipples point jauntily outward. Men's and women's nipples can be inverted, essentially pointing inward. In the worst-case scenario, "the skin adheres to itself and has to peel open to [turn outward] initially, and [that] can be painful," Constance Chen, a board-certified plastic surgeon and clinical assistant professor of plastic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, tells Mental Floss. For most women, however, an inverted nipple causes neither pain nor prevents breastfeeding with proper technique or nipple shields.
3. SOME PEOPLE HAVE EXTRA NIPPLES.
While most people have two nipples, one atop each breast (yes, both women and men have breasts), some people have extra or "supernumerary" nipples outside of the typical location. One Indian man was even found to have seven.
Leigh Anne O'Connor, a certified lactation consultant in New York, says these extra nipples can appear on or below an area named the Tail of Spence (after Scottish surgeon James Spence), which extends from the breast up into the armpit.
"Some people have nipples in their armpits, or even tiny breasts, and these nipples may leak," O'Connor tells Mental Floss. But an extra nipple is just an extra nipple—no cause for alarm or shame.
4. HERE'S WHY MEN HAVE NIPPLES.
Since the main purpose of nipples is breastfeeding babies, and male breasts do not lactate, it begs the question: Why do men have nipples? Scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard C. Lewontin tried to get to the bottom of this conundrum in a seminal paper in 1993.
All human embryos start out essentially the same. If the embryo has XY chromosomes, a gene on the Y chromosome called SRY will activate within a couple weeks of conception and begin to differentiate the embryo into one with male genitals.
However, it turns out that breast tissue begins to develop before SRY kicks in, and since nipples in men essentially do no harm, Gould and Lewontin argue, there has simply never been a good enough reason—evolutionarily speaking—to do away with them. They linger because they're benign. Or as Andrew M. Simons, a professor of biology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario wrote in Scientific American, "The presence of nipples in male mammals is a genetic architectural by-product of nipples in females. So, why do men have nipples? Because females do."
5. THE WORLD'S STRONGEST NIPPLES BELONG TO THE GREAT NIPPULINI.
Who needs pecs when you have nipples like those of The Great Nippulini, a.k.a. Sage Werbock, a performer who makes a living demonstrating the mighty power of his nipples? Each nipple can lift 70 pounds, and he holds a Guinness record for the heaviest vehicle pulled by nipples for 20 meters (66 feet)—988.5 kilograms (2179.27 pounds). He has also lifted a variety of dumbbells, anvils, and bowling balls.
6. THEY'RE VERY SENSITIVE TO STIMULATION.
It's no secret that many people take sexual pleasure from nipple stimulation. However, Michael Reitano, an expert in sexual health and wellness at Roman Health in New York, brings up a study published in 2011 in which researchers set out to map the neurology of sexual stimulation in women. Through MRI imaging, they determined that "when [the nipple is] stimulated, the sensations travel to the same part of the brain that is stimulated when the clitoris, vagina, or cervix is stimulated," Reitano says. The study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, also confirmed that it was possible for some women to have an orgasm by nipple stimulation alone.
While the same brain mapping has not yet been done on men, "there is every reason to believe that it has some capacity to function as a source of sexual pleasure for men as well," Reitano tells Mental Floss.
7. NIPPLES ARE AS UNIQUE AS FINGERPRINTS.
Nipples come in many colors, including pale pink, reddish-beige, brown, and black. Your own two nipples can even vary from each other, as can the areolae. "They also come in many different shapes," O'Connor says. "Some are more flat, while others can be quite bulbous. A person can have two nipples that look very different from each other. Asymmetry is normal."
8. A SPECIFIC KIND OF BREAST CANCER TARGETS THE NIPPLE.
While most forms of breast cancer affect the whole breast, Paget disease of the breast is a rare cancer that targets the skin and ducts of the nipple. "Most patients get a rash on the nipples that looks like a severe case of eczema. It is a cancer of breast epithelial (skin) cells," Chen says. Paget disease of the breast represents between 0.5 and 5 percent of all breast cancers.
9. AFTER MASTECTOMY, NIPPLE SENSATION CAN OCCASIONALLY BE RESTORED.
In breast cancer cases where mastectomy—removal of the breast—is necessary, it is sometimes possible to spare the nipple, allowing for a more realistic post-treatment reconstruction, though sensation is often lost. However, Chen says that in certain cases, "it is possible to restore sensation to the nipples with nerve repairs and nerve grafts when a woman undergoes natural tissue breast reconstruction. Sensory restoration to the nipple after mastectomy is very cutting edge, but if you find the right surgeon, it is possible."
10. NIPPLE STIMULATION CAN HELP INDUCE LABOR IN PREGNANT WOMEN.
When a woman is ready to give birth but the baby isn't, one piece of often-shared advice is to stimulate the mother's nipples to induce labor. A 2005 analysis of six trial studies found a significant decrease in the number of women who hadn't gone into labor after 72 hours. Just under 63 percent of the women who received stimulation were not in labor versus 94 percent who hadn't received it.
The mechanism isn't entirely clear, but breast stimulation causes the uterus to contract. It may also help release the hormone oxytocin, which can start contractions. Once the baby's born, the baby's suckling also has benefits for the mother. "When a newborn suckles, the increased oxytocin causes the uterus to contract [and shrink to its original size over the subsequent weeks] following birth," Reitano explains.
11. BREAST MILK HAS MULTIPLE WAYS TO EXIT THE NIPPLE.
If you've ever pumped your own breast milk or seen it done, you may have noticed that the milk doesn't just come out in a single stream. In a typical nipple, "There are between four and 20 outlets for the milk to come out—it can look like one stream or [coming from] various holes," O'Connor says.