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A Multidisciplinary Approach to Interstitial Cystitis: The Clinician's Guide

Dr. Nicole Cozean was just awarded the IC/BPS Physical Therapist of the Year by the IC Network, one of the largest patient advocacy groups for interstitial cystitis! Today she shares her treatment approach for this complex dysfunction. Join Dr. Cozean in San Diego on April 28-29, 2018 to learn everything there is to know about interstitial cystitis.

Interstitial cystitis (IC) is a chronic pelvic pain condition characterized by pelvic pain and urinary urgency/frequency. IC is frequently accompanied by other symptoms1, including painful intercourse, low back or hip pain, nocturia, and suprapubic tenderness.

While pelvic floor physical therapy is the most proven treatment for interstitial cystitis, most patients require a multi-disciplinary approach for optimal results. The majority are forced to develop this holistic approach on their own, but one of the most valuable things a physical therapist can provide is assistance in creating their own unique treatment plan. The American Urological Association has released treatment guidelines for interstitial cystitis, and potential treatments fall into several different categories. It is important to note that most treatments aren’t effective for the majority of patients, so a trial-and-error approach is needed to find the right balance for each patient. Tracking symptoms with a weekly symptom log can be a powerful tool to optimize the individual treatment plan.

AUA Guidelines for Interstitial Cystitis
Summary of the AUA Guidelines for IC – Download Here

Oral Medications

Oral medications are primarily used to reduce pain.Anti-depressants can dampen the nervous system, decreasing the severity of pain reported. Anti-histamines have also been shown to be effective in reducing the pain and symptoms of interstitial cystitis, perhaps because of their ability to reduce inflammation and break the cycle of dysfunction-inflammation-pain (the DIP cycle). Some patients require opioid painkillers for adequate pain control.

Urinary tract analgesics can provide temporary pain relief for some patients, but cannot be taken consistently because they thicken the urine and strain the kidneys. Some patients find success using these medications (Azo, Pyridium, Uribel) during severe pain flares.

The only FDA-approved oral treatment for interstitial cystitis is Pentosan Polysulfate (PPS, Elmiron®). This is commonly prescribed to patients after an IC diagnosis, but has been shown to be effective in only 28-32% of patients. It also requires a long time (often 6-9 months) to build up in the system and take effect, and many patients stop taking the drug before they could see effect because of side effects (including hair loss) or cost. Unfortunately, many patients lose more than a year after their initial diagnosis waiting to see if Elmiron will work for them, when it is unlikely to provide complete relief.

Antibiotics should never be prescribed for IC in the absence of a confirmed infection.

Bladder and Medical Procedures

Bladder instillations deliver numbing medication directly to the bladder through a catheter and can provide temporary pain relief for some patients. If these are effective, they typically are repeated at least weekly as symptoms return. Some patients don’t tolerate the catheterization well, finding the procedure causes more pain than it prevents. Typical bladder instillations consist of Lidocaine, Heparin, or a combination of the two.

Another route of treatment works by artificially stimulating the nerves the innervate the bladder and pelvic floor.Percutaneous tibial nerve stimulation (PTNS) directs electrical impulses from the ankle up through the pelvic floor. This is an outpatient procedure typically performed weekly for a course of 12 weeks. A more permanent option is implanting a device under the skin of the buttock to target the sacral or pudendal nerve root directly.With this procedure, the patient is given a ‘trial run’ with an external device to see how it performs. If significant improvements are noted, the device can be permanently implanted.

Many patients see marked improvement in their symptoms with a home care program. Deep breathing or meditation can calm the nervous system and reduce the amplifying effect of an upregulated nervous system. A stretching regimen targeting the inner thighs, glutes, abdomen, and pelvic floor can relax muscles and reduce nerve irritation in the region. Self-massage can find and eliminate the trigger points that are causing symptoms. Home tools like a foam roller can address external trigger points, while patients can be taught internal self-release with the help of a tool like the PelviWand or another tool.

Elimination Diet

One of the most common misunderstandings about IC centers on the ‘IC Diet.’ In fact, there’s no such thing. While nearly 90% of IC patients report that diet influences their symptoms in some way, the scope and severity of dietary triggers varies greatly between patients. There are a few common culprits - coffee, tea, citrus fruits, artificial sweeteners, tomatoes, cranberry juice - but no guarantee that a patient will be sensitive to all (or any) of these. Many patients read about an ‘IC Diet’ online after receiving their diagnosis, and are convinced that they need to cut out a huge portion of their diet.

Instead, they should be doing an elimination diet focused on identifying their trigger foods.With this approach, they eliminate most of those common culprits and see how it affects their symptoms.If they notice an improvement, they can gradually add foods back into their diet, one at a time, until they see symptoms increase again. This allows patients to identify their specific trigger foods.

Our advice for IC patients is simple - avoid your trigger foods and eat healthy. It doesn’t have to be any more restrictive than that.

There are also several supplements that have shown benefit for patients, either in clinical trials or anecdotally. Prelief (calcium glycerophospate) is an antacid that may reduce the consequences of eating a trigger food. L-Arginine is a semi-essential amino acid that facilitates blood flow and vasodilation; in clinical trials it was shown to be effective for nearly 50% of patients in reducing pain and urinary symptoms. Aloe Vera pills are used by many patients, and thought to help replenish the bladder’s protective layer. Finally, a combination of supplements known as Cystoprotek is also a common supplement taken by IC patients, combining anti-inflammatory flavonoids with molecules that may reinforce the bladder lining.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine

Acupuncture has been shown to provide relief for pelvic pain patients2, with 73% of men with chronic prostatitis (either identical or closely related to IC) reporting improvement. These men received two treatments weekly for six weeks, focusing around the sacral nerve. Women with pelvic pain and painful intercourse have also reported improvements in pain with 10 sessions of acupuncture3.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been shown to help reduce pain in conditions as diverse as cancer, low back pain, and pelvic pain. In pelvic pain, ten one-hour sessions of CBT was shown to provide significant benefit for nearly half of patients4. Supportive psychotherapy was also shown to have benefits for pelvic pain patients.

A multi-disciplinary approach provides the best results for patients. Physical therapists, who see our patients regularly, can be a great resource in suggesting additional treatment options. The American Urological Association IC Guidelines can be an important resource in guiding patients to other options and developing their unique treatment plan.

Information and Resources

For additional patient resources available for download, feel free to visit The IC Solution page.. In our upcoming course for clinicians treating interstitial cystitis (April 28-29, 2018 in San Diego), we’ll focus on the most important physical therapy techniques for IC, home stretching and self-care programs, and information to guide patients in creating a holistic treatment plan.


1. Cozean, N. "Pelvic Floor Physical Therapy in the Treatment of a Patient with Interstitial Cystitis, Dyspareunia, and Low Back Pain: A Case Report". Journal of Women's Health Physical Therapy. 2017
2. Chen R, Nickel JC. "Acupuncture ameliorates symptoms in men with chronic prostatitis/chronic pelvic pain syndrome"Urology. 2003 Jun;61(6):1156-9; discussion 1159.
3. Schlaeger, J, et al. "Acupuncture for the Treatment of Vulvodynia: A Randomized Wait‐List Controlled Pilot Study". Journal of Sexual Medicine. 30 January 2015. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12830
4. Masheb, et al. "A randomized clinical trial for women with vulvodynia: Cognitive-behavioral therapy vs. supportive psychotherapy". PAIN® Volume 141, Issues 1–2, January 2009, Pages 31-40

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