Bladder pain syndrome (also called interstitial cystitis or painful bladder syndrome) is a chronic (long-term) pain condition that affects the bladder. Bladder pain syndrome affects more women than men. Some women have severe symptoms that can lead to other health problems such as depression. Bladder pain syndrome may also affect your sex life. There is no cure, but there is treatment to help relieve your symptoms, including pain. Sometimes symptoms get better without treatment.
Bladder pain syndrome (also called interstitial cystitis or painful bladder syndrome) is a chronic (long-term) pain condition that affects the bladder. Your bladder is the organ that holds urine from the kidneys until the urine travels down the urethra and out of the body. A syndrome is a group of symptoms that are related to a certain illness or health problem.
Bladder pain syndrome can be difficult to diagnose in a woman because not every doctor agrees on the exact definition. Also, women with bladder pain syndrome might have other types of pain in their pelvis, genital area, or in other areas of their body.
Bladder pain syndrome is often mistaken for a urinary tract infection (UTI), also called a bladder infection. But bladder pain syndrome and UTIs are not the same health problem.
Bladder pain syndrome and UTIs can have some of the same symptoms, including pain near the bladder and the need to go to the bathroom often. But UTIs are caused by germs that get into the bladder, and are treated with antibiotics. Bladder pain syndrome cannot be treated with antibiotics. Experts aren’t sure what causes bladder pain syndrome, and there is no cure. But there are treatments that can improve the symptoms.
Bladder pain syndrome affects more women than men.1 Between 3 million and 8 million women in the United States may have bladder pain syndrome.1 Some studies show that white women are more likely to have bladder pain syndrome compared to other racial and ethnic groups.1,2
Studies show that bladder pain can happen at any age, but symptoms may be different depending on your age.3
Symptoms of bladder pain syndrome can include:
Your symptoms may be different from other women depending on your age and how long you have had bladder pain syndrome.3 Bladder pain syndrome symptoms also “flare,” meaning the symptoms get worse suddenly and then get better on their own.
Some women with bladder pain syndrome may feel only mild discomfort from symptoms. Others have severe pain and symptoms. Symptoms can also change over time.
Some ways that severe symptoms of bladder pain syndrome may affect a woman’s health include:
Researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes bladder pain syndrome. But some women are more at risk than others.
Your risk for having bladder pain syndrome is higher if you:
Researchers are studying whether bladder pain syndrome may be an autoimmune disease in some people, similar to lupus. In an autoimmune disease, the body’s immune (defense) system incorrectly attacks itself.9
Autoimmune diseases are on the rise, especially in women. Researchers are studying whether environmental factors, such as exposure to pesticides in foods, may be the cause of the rise in autoimmune diseases and how this may link to bladder pain syndrome.9
There is no one test to tell whether you have bladder pain syndrome. Your doctor or nurse will do a physical exam to look at your lower abdomen and lower back and ask you questions about your symptoms. Your doctor may give you tests to rule out other health problems, such as urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), bladder cancer, or kidney stones.
Some tests your doctor may do include:
There is no cure for bladder pain syndrome. But your doctor will try different treatments to figure out how to improve your symptoms.
The first treatment many people try includes steps you can take at home. Sometimes, by changing what you eat, you can make your symptoms go away. But even when symptoms do go away, they may return days or years later.
If your symptoms do not get better, other treatments your doctor may suggest include:10
Maybe. Some people report that their symptoms start or get worse after eating certain foods or drinks, such as:16
Keep a food diary to track your symptoms after eating certain foods or drinks. You can also stop eating foods or drinks one at a time for at least one week to see if your symptoms go away. If not, stop eating other trigger foods or drinks one at a time for one week to see which ones may be causing some of your symptoms.
No. Many people with bladder pain syndrome think they should drink less to relieve pain and reduce the number of times they go to the bathroom. But you need fluids, especially water, for good health. Getting enough fluids helps keep your kidneys and bladder healthy, prevent urinary tract infections, and prevent constipation, which may make your symptoms worse.9
Some women find that their bladder pain symptoms get better during pregnancy. Others find their symptoms get worse. During pregnancy, you need to urinate more often and are at higher risk for urinary tract infections and constipation. This can make symptoms worse for some women. Make sure you drink plenty of fluids, especially water.
If you are thinking about becoming pregnant, talk to your doctor about your bladder pain syndrome and any medicines you might be taking. Some medicines and treatments are not safe to use during pregnancy.
Maybe. Some women with bladder pain syndrome say that sex is uncomfortable or painful.6 Others have problems getting aroused or reaching orgasm. Talk to your doctor or nurse about different positions and lubricants you can get in the drugstore to relieve vaginal dryness during sex and ease pain.
Researchers continue to search for new ways to treat bladder pain. Some current studies focus on:
To learn more about current bladder pain treatment studies, visit ClinicalTrials.gov.
For more information about bladder pain syndrome, call the OWH Helpline at 800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:
The Office on Women's Health is grateful for the additional reviews by:
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Page last updated: April 21, 2017.
Content last reviewed: February 24, 2017.