What Is Interstitial Cystitis?

Interstitial cystitis, sometimes called bladder pain syndrome, is a chronic and very painful bladder condition. When suffering from interstitial cystitis, you could experience pressure and pain in your bladder and pelvis ranging from mild to severe.

As a normal bladder fills with fluid, a signal is sent through the pelvic nerves to the brain letting you know when it needs to be emptied. This usually isn't very painful unless you’ve been holding your pee for a prolonged period of time. If you have interstitial cystitis, you'll receive the message to pee much more frequently, sometimes up to 60 times in a day, and the process of holding and releasing urine becomes very painful. For women, the pain in the pelvic region can increase in severity during the menstrual cycle. Interstitial cystitis affects women much more often than men, as women are ten times more likely to develop the condition.

What Causes Interstitial Cystitis?

The exact cause of interstitial cystitis are unknown, however many women who have interstitial cystitis also suffer from conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia. Other theories include damaged nerves, defects in the protective bladder lining, autoimmune reaction, allergy or issues with your bladder tissue.

What are the Symptoms of Interstitial Cystitis?

Women usually begin feeling symptoms of interstitial cystitis in their forties. Symptoms can vary from individual to individual. This is a chronic condition and your pain and symptoms can increase in severity over time.
You may experience any or all of the following symptoms:

  • Burning pain in your pelvic region or perineum.
  • A persistent and intense urge to urinate.
  • Urinating frequently, often in smaller amounts, throughout the day and night.
  • Excessive bleeding during your menstrual cycle.
  • Pain during intercourse.
  • Pain when your bladder fills.

Diagnosis of Interstitial Cystitis

Because some of the symptoms resemble other conditions such as urinary tract infections, your physician will want to do a culture to rule out any other bladder issues. Once you report your symptoms to your physician, your doctor will take a detailed history and may have you undergo a series of tests which may include:

  • Pelvic exam.
  • Urine test and culture.  
  • Potassium sensitivity test.
  • Cystoscopy of the urethra.
  • Biopsy of bladder tissue.

Your physician may also ask you to keep a bladder diary, where you log the fluids you drink, how often you pee and how painful it is. Once a detailed diagnosis is reached, your physician will determine the best treatment options for you.

Treatment at Penn

While there currently is no cure for interstitial cystitis, there are several treatment options aimed at alleviating your symptoms, such as medications, diet and lifestyle changes. It will take some trial and error until you and your physician can come up with the best combination of options that give you the most effective results.

If your condition can't be controlled by medications or changes to your diet, you may require procedures performed under general anesthesia or, in the most extreme cases, bladder removal surgery. The specialists at Penn Urology have years of experience caring for women with some of the most complex gynecological and bladder conditions.

Penn Medicine surgeons and physicians offer new techniques in minimally invasive and robotic-assisted surgery. These methods lead to shortened recovery times, reduced pain and blood loss, letting you get back to your life in record time.

When you choose Penn, you choose to work with a dedicated team who continue to lead the field, advancing the science of gynecologic medicine. 

Learn more about Penn Urology.

Penn Programs & Services for Interstitial Cystitis

General Urology Program

Learn about treatment options for common urology conditions.

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