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Interstitial Cystitis

(Bladder Pain Syndrome)


Patrick J. Shenot

, MD, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital

Reviewed/Revised Nov 2023
Topic Resources

Interstitial cystitis is noninfectious bladder inflammation.

  • Interstitial cystitis causes pain over the bladder, in the pelvis, or in the lower abdomen, and the frequent and urgent need to urinate, sometimes with incontinence.

  • Doctors examine the inside of the bladder with a flexible viewing tube (cystoscopy) and sometimes do a biopsy of the bladder.

  • There is no cure, but symptoms can be relieved with changes in diet and urination habits, medications to relieve pain, and pentosan.

Interstitial cystitis was once thought to be relatively uncommon. However, doctors now think it may be more common than originally thought and that it may be responsible for other problems, such as chronic pelvic pain. Although men and children can be affected, about 90% of cases of interstitial cystitis occur in women.

The Ureters, Bladder, and Urethra

The cause is unknown. But doctors think that damage to the cells lining the bladder may allow substances in urine to irritate the bladder. Cells usually involved with allergic reactions (mast cells) may be involved in bladder changes, but their exact role is unclear.

Symptoms of Interstitial Cystitis

Initially, people with interstitial cystitis may have no symptoms. Symptoms usually appear gradually and worsen over years as the bladder wall is damaged. People have pain or pressure over the bladder or in the pelvis or lower abdomen. People also feel the need to urinate frequently and urgently, often many times per hour. Symptoms worsen as the bladder fills and diminish when people urinate. In very severe cases, people may sit on the toilet for hours, letting urine dribble out continuously.

Symptoms may worsen during ovulation or menstruation, seasonal allergies, physical or emotional stress, or sexual intercourse. Foods with high potassium content (for example, citrus fruits, chocolate, caffeinated drinks, and tomatoes), spicy foods, tobacco, and alcohol may cause symptoms to worsen.

Diagnosis of Interstitial Cystitis

  • A doctor's evaluation

  • Cystoscopy with possible biopsy

Sometimes doctors put a solution containing potassium directly into the bladder to determine how the bladder lining responds to potassium and other potential irritants.

Treatment of Interstitial Cystitis

  • Dietary changes

  • Stress reduction and pelvic muscle exercises

  • Bladder training

  • Medications

  • Sometimes surgery if other treatments are ineffective

Doctors are able to help up to 90% of people with interstitial cystitis, but complete eradication of symptoms is rare. Doctors encourage people to become aware of anything that might trigger an episode of interstitial cystitis symptoms.

Dietary changes are the first step in treatment. People avoid spicy foods and foods that are high in potassium because these foods may further irritate the bladder. Tobacco and alcohol should also be avoided.

People also are taught to change their urination habits. Bladder training is a technique that involves having the person follow a fixed schedule for urinating while awake. The doctor works with the person to establish a schedule of urinating every 2 to 3 hours and suppressing the urge to urinate at other times (for example, by relaxing and deeply breathing). As the person becomes better able to suppress the urge to urinate, the interval is gradually lengthened.

Medications are often needed. People may need to take analgesics to lessen pain. Antidepressants may also lessen pain and help relax the bladder. Antihistamines may also help decrease urinary urgency. Pentosan may be given by mouth to help restore the lining of the bladder. If oral pentosan is not effective, doctors may use a catheter to place a solution of pentosan directly into the bladder. Doctors may also instill a solution of dimethyl sulfoxide into the bladder. The person holds the solution in the bladder for 15 minutes and then urinates to remove the solution. These solutions may relieve pain and urgency for some time but usually these treatments need to be repeated.

Doctors sometimes try to relieve pain and urgency by stimulating the nerves coming off of the spinal cord (called nerve roots) that control the bladder. Another possible option is to stretch the bladder with fluid or gas. The treatment, called bladder hydrodistention, may relieve symptoms.

Doctors often combine treatments to provide more relief. However, if combined treatments are ineffective, surgery may be tried.

More Information

The following English-language resource may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

  • Urology Care Foundation: Current, comprehensive urologic health information, including a patient magazine (Urology Health extra®) and research updates

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