ESTES PARK, CO. – When patients with interstitial cystitis (IC) learn that first-line therapy is a rigorous diet designed to eliminate common bladder irritants, they tend to react in one of two ways, according to Julie A. Chacko, MD, a urologist in private practice in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Some “are just so grateful that they’re not crazy, which is what they’ve been told after 15 negative urine cultures. (Others) “look at the diet and think I’m sentencing them to death,” she said.
The sole medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration for IC is pentosan polysulfate sodium (Elmiron), and it should be reserved for the minority of patients who don’t experience significant improvement after giving the diet a reasonable shot, Dr. Chako advised. “When Elmiron works it’s great, but it’s not usually my go-to agent because it’s very expensive, you have to take it for 3-6 months to know for sure if it’s efficacious, and it has to be taken on an empty stomach. It’s a difficult medication.”
She advises patients to work with the diet. “Over time, they’re going to be able to find what I call their island – a point where they know very well their limitations and become quite comfortable with them,” she said at a conference on internal medicine sponsored by the University of Colorado.
A poorly understood yet common disorder, IC has a prevalence estimated at 0.5%-4% in women, less in men. Although typically diagnosed in the fourth decade or later, IC occurs at all ages. In some studies, the delay from first appearance of symptoms to arrival at a diagnosis is up to 8 years.
Interstitial cystitis is increasingly being called bladder pain syndrome in the literature, said Dr. Chako, who added, “I personally don’t love bladder pain syndrome as a description for this process. This syndrome has variable symptoms, and patients can have no pain at all.”
The mechanisms that result in IC are a mystery. The leading theory is that a bladder permeability problem allows urinary irritants to reach the interstitium. Nearly 80% of patients with IC can, with coaxing, identify dietary triggers for their symptoms, thereby basically establishing the diagnosis.
Other proposed mechanisms include an infectious agent that’s yet to be identified, allergic reaction, and neuromodulatory dysfunction. Common triggers other than foods include menses, copulation, emotional distress, and bladder trauma, including transvaginal ultrasound.
Conditions commonly associated with IC include fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, vulvodynia, migraines, depression, and anxiety.
The most common symptoms of IC are urinary urgency and frequency. Many affected patients have dysuria. Some have pain, which is typically suprapubic. However, pain can be present anywhere in a band circumscribing the whole central section of the torso, including the lower back, lower abdomen, urethra, vagina, and vulva. Patients describe a range of pain – burning, aching, stabbing, itching, buzzing, or a feeling of pressure.
“Most women who come in with IC are married to the idea that they’re having recurrent UTIs. They’re going to get antibiotics any way they can for their UTIs: over the phone, at urgent care. You need to get them to buy into the idea that even though UTIs are common, maybe not all of their flares are infections. They ask, ‘Then why do I feel better when I’m on antibiotics for recurrent UTI even though the cultures are negative?’ I say, ‘You feel less stress and anxiety because you think you’re on effective treatment,” Dr. Chacko said.
The diagnosis of IC is one of exclusions. Diagnoses to rule out before arriving at IC include recurrent UTI; overactive bladder, which should present with pure urge frequency and respond to medications for that condition; kidney stone disease present at the end of the ureter where it enters the bladder; gastrointestinal pathology; bladder cancer; and ovarian or uterine pathology.
Referral to a urologist for cystoscopy and cytology is appropriate in patients with microscopic hematuria, a significant smoking history predisposing to bladder cancer, or severe pain with severe frequency, which raises the possibility of Hunner’s ulcers, considered pathognomic for IC, respond “beautifully” to fulguration, she said.
Otherwise, IC can readily be managed by interested primary care physicians. The IC diet initially calls for 2 weeks of strict avoidance of all high-risk foods, most of which are acidic foods. These include fruits and fruit juices, especially citrus and cranberry juices; tomatoes and tomato products, including ketchup; yogurt; chocolate; coffee and tea, including decaf; vinegar; spicy foods; and carbonated beverages, water included.
These foods can later be added back one at a time to the diet while watching for IC flares, which typically occur within hours to several days of re-introducing the food. The return to coffee consumption, if that’s something important to the patient, should be with low-acid coffee. If that triggers an IC flare, try decaf. In time, many patients find they can consume some trigger foods in modest amounts.
“I tell patients it will take 12-18 months to get a good handle on their IC,” Dr. Chacko noted.
The use of OTC alkalizing agents such as Prelief may diffuse dietary triggers. A teaspoon of baking soda in water is also effective.
Second-line treatments include oral hydroxyzine 10-20 mg at bedtime; amitriptyline 10-20 mg at bedtime, mainly for patients with predominant pain symptoms; cimeditine; and pentosan polysulfate at 100 mg TID.
For IC patients with pelvic muscle tightness on pelvic examination, referral to a physical therapist adept at pelvic floor trigger point release can work wonders, she added.
One second-line option is bladder instillations of dimethyl sulfoxide weekly for 6 weeks, cutting back to once monthly maintenance therapy if the more intensive regimen is effective. Instillation of “heparin with lidocaine is a rescue solution. If it’s going to work, it kicks in within a few hours and usually lasts for 24-72 hours. It gets patients through a weekend, a wedding, or a funeral. A response can help make the IC diagnosis, too,” Dr. Chacko said.
She reported having no financial conflicts of interest regarding her presentation.