What is interstitial cystitis and how can it cause incontinence?

What is interstitial cystitis?

Interstitial cystitis (IC) is a condition which results in pain and pressure within the bladder region. It is also known as painful bladder syndrome, bladder pain syndrome (BPS) and chronic bacterial cystitis.

The condition tends to affect people mostly in their 30s and 40s, and is far more common in women than men. Although it isn’t always clear what causes interstitial cystitis, it can have a significant impact on your lifestyle, and can be a cause for incontinence as well as other issues. Read TENA’s guide on the symptoms of interstitial cystitis as well as treatment recommendations below.

Interstitial cystitis symptoms

The most common symptom of interstitial cystitis is acute pain below the belly button. The pain tends to be accompanied by frequent, sudden and uncontrollable urges to use the toilet, occasionally leading to incontinence issues.

As well as experiencing pain, people with interstitial cystitis can suffer with urinary tract symptoms, lasting upwards of 6 weeks. Quite often the cause of the infection can be difficult to understand, and it can take a long time for people to realise that they may be suffering from interstitial cystitis.

The pain associated with interstitial cystitis is typically felt within the pelvic area, just below the belly button, although some women report pain in their vulva. Bladder pain in men is mostly felt in the scrotum, testicle and/or penis. Interstitial cystitis pain generally worsens when there is increased bladder pressure  (i.e. your bladder is full), although more often than not, short-term relief comes after emptying the bladder. Women may also notice that this pain is heightened when on your period and occasionally during sex.

You may also notice you’re using the toilet more than normal, often waking up and going during the night too. These urges may be frequent and sometimes lead to . If you are suffering from incontinence, then it is worth investing in some of our incontinence pads and pants. There are a wide variety of options for both men and women so definitely take a look at our full range of incontinence products.

Although some people will experience interstitial cystitis symptoms frequently, others may only have them sporadically – it will differ from person to person.

Interstitial Cystitis Causes

Interstitial cystitis causes are difficult to determine using the tests currently available to healthcare practitioners, and this can be quite frustrating for those suffering with the condition. Difficulties in the diagnosis is part of why interstitial cystitis is so difficult to treat. There are several theories as to what may cause the condition:

  • Chronic bacterial infection of the bladder's lining
  • The immune system attacking the bladder
  • Inflammation causing the body to release chemicals, leading to interstitial cystitis symptoms
  • Something within the urine causing irritation
  • Sensitivity of the bladder tissue causing urine to irritate it
  • A separate condition causing inflammation leading to irritation of the bladder

Interstitial Cystitis Diagnosis

As mentioned previously, interstitial cystitis diagnosis is currently non-definitive. When visiting your GP, they may perform a series of tests to rule out any other underlying conditions, before giving you their diagnosis. They will be able to give you advice on how to tackle your own interstitial cystitis symptoms and tailor this advice to you specifically.

Is Interstitial Cystitis a UTI?

UTIs are another common issue affecting the urinary tract and bladder, and may have some symptoms in common with interstitial cystitis. There is a small but growing body of evidence that interstitial cystitis is likely to be a chronic bacterial infection of the bladder’s lining. The best way to diagnose most UTIs is urine culture, in which a small amount of urine is transferred to an environment in which bacteria can grow, be identified and their susceptibility to antibiotics be tested. Unfortunately, with interstitial cystitis, urine culture tends to be negative because bacteria aren’t present in large numbers, as they are not shed into urine from the bladder’s lining. Likewise, antibiotics may not be effective. Healthcare practitioners and scientists are working to develop better tests and treatments but medical understanding of UTIs is far clearer than interstitial cystitis, and doctors can diagnose and treat UTIs far more easily.

Check out our page on UTIs for more information about this specific condition. You can also find more specific info on UTIs in Men and UTIs in Women.

Interstitial cystitis treatment: living with bladder pain

If you suspect you have interstitial cystitis, it’s important to see your GP. While interstitial cystitis is a chronic condition that can be difficult and take time to treat, there are some moderate lifestyle changes you can make that may help treat your symptoms.

  • Eating a highly nutritious and well-balanced diet as this can strengthen the immune system 
  • Avoid foods high in sugar and salt
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Wear loose fitting clothing
  • Plan bathroom breaks

If your symptoms are worsening and negatively impacting your everyday lifestyle, do reach out to your GP.

We hope this helped you feel well-informed about the causes, symptoms and treatment of interstitial cystitis. If you have interstitial cystitis and are concerned about urinary incontinence, then check out our guide on urinary where we cover the basics. If you find yourself suffering with an irritable bladder, we also have more information on the symptoms and causes of an overactive bladder. But most importantly, be sure to speak to your GP if you are experiencing interstitial cystitis symptoms.


  1. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/interstitial-cystitis/
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/interstitial-cystitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20354357
  3. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/15735-interstitial-cystitis-painful-bladder-syndrome/diagnosis-and-tests
  4. https://www.ichelp.org/living-with-ic/interstitial-cystitis-and-diet/what-to-eat/