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What Is Painful Bladder Syndrome?

Blood and urine samples are often evaluated to detect bladder infections.
A cutaway of a female body showing the bladder in dark pink.
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  • Written By: D. Jeffress
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2014
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Painful bladder syndrome is a chronic disorder that involves inflammation and swelling of the inner tissue lining of the bladder. People who have the condition usually experience frequent urges to urinate and constant lower abdominal pains. Unlike most urinary tract problems, painful bladder syndrome does not appear to be caused by an infection. There is currently no clear cure for the syndrome, but many patients respond well to oral anti-inflammatory medications and minimally-invasive surgical techniques to stimulate better bladder functioning.

The causes of painful bladder syndrome are not known. The symptoms of the condition resemble those of common urinary tract infections, but upon examination patients show no signs of bacterial, fungal, or viral infestations. Many doctors believe the syndrome is a sign of an underlying autoimmune disorder that causes an inflammatory response in the bladder walls, though current research is unable to support the theory in all cases. Some patients have family histories of painful bladder syndrome, suggesting that an inherited genetic factor may contribute to the disorder.

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Painful bladder syndrome occurs when the protective tissue lining on the bladder walls becomes inflamed and damaged. When the bladder is irritated, it usually causes chronic pelvic pain and makes a person feel as if he or she needs to urinate very frequently. Only a small amount of urine is produced each time a person goes to the bathroom, despite overwhelming urges and a sense of fullness in the bladder. Painful bladder syndrome is much more common in women than in men, and patients between the ages of 20 and 40 are affected more often than any other age group.

It can be difficult for doctors to make a clear diagnosis of painful bladder syndrome. In many cases, a diagnosis is made after all other possible explanations for symptoms have been ruled out. Blood, urine, and mucus samples are tested to look for signs of infection and autoimmune problems. A physical exam of the urinary tract with the aid of an endoscope often is performed to detect the location and severity of inflammation. Imaging scans and a bladder biopsy may also be needed to rule out the possibility of bladder cancer.

Treatment decisions are made based on a patient's specific symptoms. Doctors often prescribe painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs and encourage patients to lower their stress levels to help with symptoms. A medication called pentosan may also be prescribed to help repair damage to the bladder walls and prevent future bouts of serious inflammation. If medical therapy fails, a small electric device may be implanted in the back to help regulate nerve impulses in the bladder. Ongoing research hopes to discover a permanent, effective cure for painful bladder syndrome in the near future.

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