Men's Health, Womens Health

What is Interstitial Cystitis?

An image of two people clearly needing to urinate to illustrate what is interstitial cystitis

In common terms, interstitial cystitis (IC) is called painful bladder syndrome. Even though that’s a simple way to describe it – and the term describes the condition perfectly – the condition is as tricky as its medical name.

IC is difficult to diagnose, and although treatment can make life manageable, there’s no cure. Interstitial cystitis can affect your social life, ability to exercise, sleep, sex life, and even your ability to work.

If you already suspect you have interstitial cystitis, do contact us for an appointment. But if you want to check out some more facts first, read on. This is the first of two posts on the topic. We’ll start at the beginning today.

What is IC?

IC is chronic. Bladder pressure, bladder pain, and even pelvic pain can range from mild discomfort to severe pain.

Because IC has a wide range of symptoms and severity, many experts think that it might not be a single disease. It could be several. And since IC is a mystery, your provider will likely tell you that you have IC if you’ve had urinary pain for more than six weeks that is not caused by other conditions like infection or kidney stones.

Your bladder is a hollow, stretchable, muscular organ. Its purpose is to store urine after your kidneys have filtered it, and then expel the urine from your body. Once your bladder is full, it sends a message through your pelvic nerves and up to your brain that it’s time to urinate. That’s what makes you feel the urge to urinate.

Enter interstitial cystitis.

If you have IC, your signals are getting crossed. You feel the need to urinate more often even though your bladder isn’t full up yet. The urge may feel urgent. Urinating may be painful. Symptoms may come and go or stick with you constantly. In severe cases, people with IC have been known to make 40-60 trips to the bathroom per day.

Interstitial Cystitis: Symptoms

Symptoms vary from person to person. If you have IC, your symptoms may also fluctuate. Common triggers that can cause flare-ups include

  • exercise,
  • menstruation,
  • sitting for a long time,
  • stress,
  • certain foods and beverages,
  • exercise,
  • urinary tract infections, and
  • sexual activity.

Symptoms can change every day or week and can linger for months or years. They may even recede without any treatment.

Common symptoms of interstitial cystitis in both men and women:

  • Bladder pressure and pain that worsens as your bladder fills up
  • Pain in your lower belly, lower back, pelvis, or urethra (the tube that carries pee from your bladder out of your body)
  • The need to urinate more than the normal 7-8 times a day
  • Feeling like you need to urinate immediately, even right after you go
  • Chronic pelvic pain

Common IC symptoms in women

  • Pain in the vulva, vagina, or the area between the vagina and anus
  • Pain during sex

Common IC symptoms in men

  • Pain in the scrotum, testicles, penis, or the area behind the scrotum
  • Pain during orgasm or after sex

What Causes IC?

It’s hard to say. The exact cause of interstitial cystitis is unknown. Many factors likely contribute. One possibility is a defect in the protective lining (epithelium) of the bladder. A leak in this lining can allow toxic substances in your urine to irritate your bladder wall. Other possibilities include:

  • Inflammation produces chemicals that cause symptoms.
  • A chemical or other substance in your urine damages your bladder.
  • A nerve problem causes a misfire that makes your bladder feel pain even if it’s not there.

Contributing factors could also include

  • autoimmune reactions
  • heredity
  • infection
  • allergy

Unfortunately, IC can result in a number of complications, including:

  • Reduced bladder capacity
  • Lower quality of life
  • Sexual intimacy problems
  • Emotional troubles
  • Mental health issues

Who is at Higher Risk of Having Interstitial Cystitis?

Millions of Americans have been diagnosed at some point in their lives with IC. Risk factors are based on sex, age, and history of chronic pain disorder.

  • Sex. For some reason, women are diagnosed with interstitial cystitis more often than men. The difference is substantial: 90% of people diagnosed with IC are women. In men, it often looks like they have IC because the symptoms are present, but instead, they have an inflammation of the prostate gland (prostatitis).
  • Age. Most people who have interstitial cystitis diagnosed start having problems in their 30s or 40s. The risk of getting it increases as you age.
  • Chronic pain disorder. It is possible that interstitial cystitis is associated with other chronic pain disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia.

IC: How it’s Diagnosed

IC isn’t like COVID. There’s no test that you can get that will tell you whether you have it or not. Instead, it’s about what you don’t have. If you go to your doctor because you have bladder pain and a frequent and urgent need to urinate, your doctor will start by testing you for things that can be tested. For example, whether you are a man or a woman, your doctor would check you for

  • urinary tract infection
  • bladder cancer
  • sexually transmitted diseases
  • kidney stones.

If you’re a woman, then your doctor will also check you out for endometriosis.

If you’re a man, your doctor will check your prostate to make sure it isn’t inflamed.

The idea is that once your doctor rules out everything else, they can then diagnose you with interstitial cystitis.

Here are some tests that you could expect your doctor to run to rule out other conditions:

  • Urinalysis and urine culture
  • Postvoid residual urine volume using an ultrasound
  • Cystoscopy
  • Bladder and urethra biopsy
  • Bladder stretching
  • Prostate fluid culture

We Can Help

If you’re diagnosed with IC, don’t worry. Although it’s a chronic condition and there’s no cure, there are many treatment options that can help make your life manageable again. We’ll take a look at these treatment options and the outlook for you in our next article.

If you’re suffering from chronic bladder pain and a frequent, urgent need to urinate, contact us for an appointment. Your life doesn’t have to be turned upside down – we can help you get back on track to feeling better and living your best life.

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