Interstitial cystitis (IC) is one of the more common—but less known—causes of bladder pain and urination problems. More than 1.3 million Americans have long-term bladder pain, and eight out of 10 of them are women. Yet if you don't know much about IC, you're not alone. This condition is just starting to get the attention it deserves.
A diagnosis of IC is based on these factors:
Presence of pain in and around the bladder, usually accompanied by frequent or sudden, strong urges to urinate
Absence of any other illness that could explain the symptoms.
Here's a closer look at how it feels to have IC—and what you can do to feel better.
IC at a glance
Each person experiences IC a little differently, but the following three symptoms are typical:
Bladder pain can range from mild to severe, but it's more than the usual discomfort of a full bladder. Often, the pain eases when you urinate and then gets worse again as your bladder refills. Pain, pressure, or tenderness may also occur in the pelvic area or genitals. For women, this may cause pain during sexual intercourse. For men, it may cause pain during ejaculation.
Urinary frequency refers to urinating eight or more times a day. Some people with severe IC urinate much more often than that—up to 60 times a day—in an attempt to temporarily relieve their pain. The more time you spend in the bathroom, the harder it becomes to get anything done at home or work or to have an active social life. Frequent nighttime urination, called nocturia, can also wreak havoc with your sleep.
Urinary urgency refers to sudden, strong urges to urinate. This feeling is normal if you're downing lots of fluids or haven't been near a bathroom for hours. But when you have IC, you may feel as if you have to go right now, even when you don't have much urine to pass.
As time goes on
The symptoms of IC often flare up and then go away, only to reappear later. If you pay close attention, you might notice that certain things tend to set off your flare-ups. Common triggers include foods, allergies, stress, and sexual activity. Some women notice that their symptoms tend to get worse during the week before menstruation.
IC may start out with mild symptoms that aren't too difficult to manage. Left untreated, however, the symptoms may worsen over time. As the pain becomes more intense and constant, it can take a toll on your emotional well-being. People with IC are five times more likely to be treated for emotional disorders than those without the disease.
Fortunately, you don't have to just live with IC. Treatment and lifestyle changes can often bring relief. But first, you need to get a correct diagnosis.
A number of other conditions can cause symptoms similar to those of IC. Examples include urinary tract infections, overactive bladder, bladder cancer, endometriosis, kidney stones, and sexually transmitted infections. Before IC is diagnosed, these conditions must be ruled out. To do that, your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms. Depending on the situation, various medical tests may be done as well.
Clues that suggest you might have IC include:
Bladder pain that gets worse as your bladder fills up or eases when you urinate
Bladder pain that gets worse when you consume certain foods, such as tomatoes, spices, chocolate, orange juice, caffeinated drinks, or alcoholic beverages
Absence of bacteria in your urine and lack of response to antibiotics
Call your doctor if you suspect that you might have IC. Once you know what you're up against, you can start focusing on feeling better again.