Interstitial Cystitis (IC)/Painful Bladder Syndrome (PBS)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Quick GuidePelvic Pain: What's Causing Your Pelvic Pain?

Pelvic Pain: What's Causing Your Pelvic Pain?

What is the treatment for interstitial cystitis?

Oral medications

Oral medications that may be used to treat IC/PBS include low doses of antidepressants of the tricyclic group such as amitryptiline (Elavil). This is not due to a belief that IC/PBS is a psychological condition; rather, tricyclic antidepressants can help reduce the hyperactivation of nerves within the bladder wall. The antiseizure medication gabapentin (Neurontin, Gabarone) also has been used to treat nerve-related pain and has sometimes been used to treat the pain of IC/PBS. Oral antihistamines also may be prescribed to help reduce allergic symptoms that may be worsening the patient's IC/PBS.

For patients who may not respond well to amitryptiline, another type of oral medication that can be used is the heparinoid (heparin-like) drug pentosan polysulfate sodium (PPS; brand name Elmiron). PPS is chemically similar to the substance that lines the bladder, and it is believed that PPS assists in the protection of the inner lining cells of the bladder. Even after therapy with PPS has begun, patients may still experience symptoms for some time because the sensory nerves in the bladder may have been hyperactive, and it takes time for the nerves to return to their normal state of activation. Therefore, doctors recommend giving up to one year of PPS treatment in mild IC/PBS (and two years in severe IC/PBS) before deciding if the drug is effective or not. Between one-third and two-thirds of patients will improve after three months of treatment.

For those individuals who are unable to sleep well because of the discomfort of IC/PBS, antihistamines such as hydroxyzine can be given to facilitate sleep.

Aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil) are sometimes used as a first line of defense against mild discomfort. However, they may make symptoms worse in some patients. Over-the-counter forms of phenazopyridine hydrochloride (Azo-Standard, Prodium, and Uristat) may provide some relief from urinary pain, urgency, frequency, and burning. Higher doses of the drug are available by prescription as Prodium and phenazopyridine (Pyridium).

Bladder distension

As mentioned previously, because some patients have noted an improvement in symptoms after bladder distension done to diagnose IC/PBS, bladder distension (termed hydrodistension) sometimes is used for therapy of IC/PBS. Bladder distension helps reduce symptoms in many patients with interstitial cystitis. (Studies have shown an improvement in 40-80% of patients.) When it is effective, the relief of symptoms persists for several weeks to months after the procedure. It is usually performed under anesthesia or heavy sedation because of discomfort, and some patients have a temporary worsening of symptoms following the procedure.

Bladder instillation (intravesical therapy)

This procedure may also be called a bladder wash or bath. During a bladder instillation, the bladder is filled with a solution that is held for varying periods of time, from a few seconds to 15 minutes, before being drained through a narrow tube called a catheter.

In severe cases of IC/PBS, intravesical solutions may be administered along with oral PPS to provide relief until the oral PPS has had time to take effect.

Drugs that have been used for bladder instillations include dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO, RIMSO-50), heparin, sodium bicarbonate, PPS, and hydrocortisone (a steroid).

Other surgical therapies for interstitial cystitis

In severe cases of IC/PBS that do not respond well to oral medications or to bladder distension or instillation, more invasive surgical procedures may be attempted. A procedure known as sacral neuromodulation has been shown to be effective in controlling symptoms in some people with IC/PBS. The term "neuromodulation" refers to an alteration of the nervous system. In sacral neuromodulation, a device is implanted that allows for electrical impulses to stimulate the nerves in the sacral (lower back) area. Sacral neuromodulation is believed to work by inhibiting the hyperactive signals from the sensory nerves within the bladder wall. For sacral neuromodulation, a wire from an electrical impulse generator is implanted in the sacral region of the spinal column. If there is relief of symptoms, the impulse generator can be implanted beneath the skin in the region of the buttocks. A remote control programmer allows the patient to adjust the impulse frequency and power to provide optimal relief of symptoms.

Therapies that also have been used include transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), a form of neuromodulation that does not involve surgical placement of wires or an impulse generator. With TENS, mild electric pulses enter the body for minutes to hours two or more times a day either through wires placed on the surface of the lower back or the suprapubic region, between the navel and the pubic hair, or through special devices inserted into the vagina in women or into the rectum in men. It is believed that the electric pulses may increase blood flow to the bladder, strengthen pelvic muscles that help control the bladder, and trigger the release of hormones that block pain. TENS is generally more effective in reducing pain than in reducing urinary frequency.

Other surgical procedures that may rarely be performed to treat severe IC/PBS include peripheral denervation (disrupting the nerves to and from the bladder wall), bladder augmentation to increase bladder capacity, and cystectomy (bladder removal) with diversion, or re-routing, of urine flow into an artificial bladder formed from a loop of intestine.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/8/2016

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