by Michael Hurley, L.Ac.

According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 700,000 people in the United States are affected by interstitial cystitis (IC).  Also known as painful bladder syndrome (PBS), it is a chronic condition that causes bladder pressure, bladder pain, and sometimes pelvic pain.  The pain ranges from mild discomfort to severe and can have repeated flare-ups from time to time. While there is no cure for IC in the conventional medical system, Chinese medicine can greatly benefit those who suffer from this syndrome.

This article will address:   

  • Signs, Symptoms, and Conventional Medicine Approach
  • How Chinese Medicine Looks at IC
  • How Acupuncture Can Help

Signs, Symptoms, and Conventional Medicine Approach

The bladder is the organ in the human body that stores urine.  When the bladder is full, it signals your brain that it’s time to urinate by communicating through the pelvic nerves. This is what creates the urge to urinate. With interstitial cystitis, there is something confusing the urinary bladder system.  The person feels the need to urinate more often and with smaller volumes of urine than most people.

The signs and symptoms of interstitial cystitis vary from person to person. If you have interstitial cystitis, your symptoms may also vary over time, periodically flaring in response to common triggers, such as menstruation, sitting for a long time, stress, exercise and sexual activity.

Interstitial cystitis signs and symptoms may include:

  • Pain in your pelvis or perineum (chronic or acute)
  • A persistent, urgent need to urinate
  • Frequent urination, often of small amounts, throughout the day and night (sometimes up to 60 times a day)
  • Pain or discomfort while the bladder fills and relief after urinating.
  • Pain during sexual intercourse.

This sounds similar to a urinary tract infection but there is usually no infection. However, symptoms may worsen if a person with interstitial cystitis gets a urinary tract infection.

The exact cause of interstitial cystitis isn’t known, but it’s likely that many factors contribute. For instance, people with interstitial cystitis may also have a defect in the protective lining (epithelium) of the bladder. A leak in the epithelium may allow toxic substances in urine to irritate your bladder wall. Other possible but unproven contributing factors include an autoimmune reaction, heredity, infection or allergy.

These factors are associated with a higher risk of interstitial cystitis:

  • Up to 90% of people with IC are women.  Symptoms in men look like interstitial cystitis, but they are usually associated with an inflammation of the prostate gland (prostatitis).
  • Skin and hair color. Having fair skin and red hair has been associated with a greater risk of interstitial cystitis.
  • Most people with interstitial cystitis are diagnosed during their 30s or older.
  • Existing chronic pain disorder. Interstitial cystitis may be associated with other chronic pain disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome or fibromyalgia.

Interstitial cystitis can result in a number of complications, including:

  • Reduced bladder capacity. Interstitial cystitis can cause stiffening of the bladder wall, which allows your bladder to hold less urine.
  • Lower quality of life. Frequent urination and pain may interfere with social activities, work and other activities of daily life.
  • Sexual intimacy problems. Frequent urination and pain may strain your personal relationships, and sexual intimacy may suffer.
  • Emotional troubles. The chronic pain and interrupted sleep associated with interstitial cystitis may cause emotional stress and can lead to depression.

While there is no real cure for IC in conventional medicine, it symptoms tend to temporarily subside after a period of time.  Conventional treatment is mostly to ease the symptoms and can include physical therapy, NSAIDs, anti-depressants, and certain pharmaceutical products that coat the bladder epithelium to help with inflammation.  Surgery is usually not an option as it could cause other complications.

How Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture for IC Can Help

Chinese medicine is useful for treating IC because it not only alleviates the symptom discomfort naturally, but it helps balance the underlying conditions that have caused the symptoms in the first place.  Regular treatment with a Chinese medical approach reduces the frequency of flare-ups and sometimes eliminates the condition altogether.  Of course, this also requires regular maintenance to keep the imbalances from getting to this point again.

Diagnosis and treatment in Chinese Medicine takes a multi-faceted approach.  Chinese Medicine characterizes IC as Lin Syndrome, which means a frequent urge to urinate. Your acupuncturist will also characterize the Lin Syndrome by the type of Lin presented: heat, stone, blood, Qi, or turbid. Diagnosis does not stop here. Chinese Medicine goes even further, knowing there are always multiple pieces of the puzzle.

In addition to the above, the acupuncturist will diagnose the underlying patterns within the body.  Some common Chinese Medicine patterns that can lead to IC are: Damp Heat, Spleen Qi Vacuity, Blood Stasis, Kidney Yin or Yang Vacuity.  These underlying patterns affect more than just the IC.  They not only cause or contribute to IC symptoms but they may also cause or exacerbate additional issues a well.

This is where Chinese Medicine excels.  A patient can go to their acupuncturist with a certain chief complaint and the treatment they receive will most likely help with many other symptoms that were not even the primary concern but are similarly troublesome.  For example: Someone with a Spleen Qi Vacuity pattern may not only be experiencing lower abdominal pain or IC-like symptoms but also experience issues such as fatigue, dizziness, and loss of appetite.

To treat IC and the underlying conditions, an acupuncturist may use a combination of treatments including acupuncture, Chinese herbal formulas, and dietary suggestions.  No two treatments for IC are exactly the same and will depend on the specific factors of the patient’s diagnosis. In all cases, consistent and regular treatment combined with following recommended diet and life-style changes are the keys to successful treatment.

  • This article was written by Michael Hurley L.Ac. Michael is the co-owner and acupuncturist at Cup of Life Healing Center located at 82 Washington Street Suite 2 in Keene, NH. (603) 352-3625