Many women are all too familiar with the annoyances of a UTI—discomfort in the pelvic region, pain during sex and constant trips to the bathroom. However, you might not have a UTI at all. These symptoms are also associated with a bladder disease that you can’t solve by drinking a carton of cranberry juice. Here’s how to tell if you have interstitial cystitis and what you can do about it.
Types of interstitial cystitis
Interstitial cystitis (IC) is a bladder disease that anyone can get but is more prominent in women. The disease hinders a person’s ability to urinate and leads to overall discomfort in the pelvic region. IC presents differently from one patient to the next, but it’s most often characterized by urgent or frequent urination, pain while urinating or having sexual intercourse and pressure on the bladder. A variety of treatment options are available depending on the severity of symptoms.
Interstitial cystitis is categorized as either non-ulcerative or ulcerative. Nearly 90 percent of patients experience non-ulcerative IC. The defining feature of this form is clusters of glomerulations, which are very small hemorrhages pinpointed across the bladder wall. Glomerulations are associated with other diseases besides non-ulcerative IC and must present with additional symptoms in order to receive a proper diagnosis.
Ulcerative IC affects only 5 to 10 percent of patients. Doctors can tell immediately after a scan if a patient is suffering from ulcerative IC because the bladder will display Hunner’s ulcers. Contrary to the glomerulations of non-ulcerative IC, Hunner’s ulcers are red and bleeding patches that cover the bladder wall. The ulcerative form of IC is rare but easy to diagnose because Hunner’s ulcers are unique to interstitial cystitis.
Although symptoms vary among patients, a handful of warning signs are prevalent in most IC cases. Individuals living with interstitial cystitis usually experience some level of pelvic pain ranging from mild to severe, depending on their situation. Women, in particular, develop either chronic or acute pain in the urethra, vagina or lower abdomen. Pain can have triggers like sexual intercourse or be a constant presence in your everyday life.
Interstitial cystitis also often causes urinary urgency. Patients with this symptom feel the sudden urge to use the restroom and feel intense pressure on their bladder. The need to urinate could be painful or lead to muscle spasms in the lower abdomen. It’s normal for our bodies to tell us we need a bathroom break, but IC brings this feeling to a whole new level.
How to tell if you have IC
Interstitial cystitis can be hard to diagnose in women because pelvic pain and urinary urgency are symptoms of other common, female-specific diseases such as endometriosis and urinary tract infections.
Pelvic pain and urinary urgency are two symptoms you should never ignore, especially when they occur at the same time. Too many women mistake these symptoms for a UTI or another ailment that will resolve on its own. Unfortunately, IC has no known cure and will become worse over time without proper treatment. If your symptoms haven’t gone away, chances are, interstitial cystitis is what’s causing you problems.
A patient won’t know for sure what’s causing the issue until their doctor conducts a pelvic examination. Professional guidance is necessary for an accurate diagnosis and will help you move forward with the right treatment plan. Because IC is less researched than other bladder diseases, patients may need to be their own advocate and stress that their doctors test for it, especially if they’ve been treated for other bladder problems previously but haven’t found relief.
When it comes to interstitial cystitis, treatment plans aren’t one-size-fits-all. A few exercises and coping skills at home will do just fine for mild bouts of IC, while severe cases might require surgery. Gentler approaches to treating IC include dietary supplements, heat pads or cold packs, physical therapy and stress-relieving techniques.
A number of surgeries are available for severe IC. Neuromodulators are either applied to the skin’s surface or surgically implanted and prevent muscle spasms with electrical pulses. Laser surgery is the most effective treatment for the 5 to 10 percent of individuals who develop Hunner’s ulcers, because the procedure removes infected parts of the bladder wall. Researchers are exploring additional treatment options, which will become available as soon as they’re deemed safe for patients.
If you’re suffering from the symptoms of IC, you don’t have to deal with it forever. Pain and frequent urination are signs that something’s not right and warrant a trip to the doctor’s office. The diagnosis could be a mild infection, or it could be IC. Urge your doctor to test for IC if you’re experiencing these symptoms. Rest assured, your healthcare team will find the right solution to help reclaim your life and comfort.