Pain is never fun to live with.
Bladder pain, in particular, can be a very uncomfortable sensation, and it is often accompanied by other embarrassing and sometimes scary symptoms.
If you experience any sort of bladder pain, you are sure to wonder what is causing it and how to get rid of it.
In this article, we tell you everything you need to know about bladder pain. We discuss various causes, tell you some treatment options, and give you five easy tips that can help you find relief.
What is the bladder?
The bladder is a hollow, muscular organ that sits in the middle of your pelvis. It forms part of your urinary tract along with your kidneys, ureters, and urethra.
The kidneys are responsible for producing urine. After your kidneys make urine, it is released into your ureters and flows down to your bladder.
Like a balloon, your bladder expands to collect and hold urine. It can also contract and allow urine to flow through the urethra and out of your body.
Several conditions can affect the bladder and cause you to feel pain. Some of these conditions are mild and easy to treat, while others are more serious and potentially fatal.
What does bladder pain feel like?
Bladder pain may feel different from person to person. Some have a burning sensation when they urinate. Others experience episodes of piercing or sharp pain in the middle of their pelvises. Some feel a more generalized diffuse ache.
The pain often becomes worse as the bladder gets full and may be relieved by the bladder being emptied.
Where do you feel bladder pain?
Because the bladder is located in the middle of your body, bladder pain is usually felt right at the center of your pelvis.
However, the bladder comes into close contact with some other tissues in the pelvis. Certain conditions of the bladder can lead to irritation of these surrounding tissues and cause diffuse pelvic pain.
If the issue affecting your bladder also affects or spreads up to your kidneys, you might feel kidney pain. This is often felt as a dull ache or discomfort on one side of your back, beneath your rib cage.
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When can you experience bladder pain?
Pain is your body’s way of telling you that there is an injury or damage somewhere. You can experience bladder pain when the wall of your bladder is damaged or irritated.
Also, if urine cannot be passed out of your bladder because your urethra is blocked, pressure builds up in the bladder, and this can cause pain.
Pain around the bladder area may also be due to conditions affecting nearby organs, such as the gastrointestinal tract and the reproductive organs.
Why does my bladder hurt?
A wide variety of conditions can irritate your bladder wall and lead to bladder pain. We discuss the most common ones below:
Urinary tract infection (UTI)
The term urinary tract infection refers to an invasion of any part of the urinary tract by bacteria.
Your urinary tract is usually sterile and free of germs. But, sometimes, bacteria can get enter through the urethra and cause an infection.
Because the bladder is right above the urethra, it is the most commonly affected part of the urinary tract. Infection of the bladder is specifically called cystitis.
Apart from bladder pain, other symptoms of cystitis include:
- Urinating more frequently
- Pain in the lower back
- A feeling of pressure in the bladder
- Cloudy urine
- Bloody urine
- Foul-smelling urine
UTIs are more common in women than they are in men. Studies show that 40 to 60 percent of women suffer from a UTI during their lifetime.
This is mainly because of the anatomical differences between women and men. Women have a shorter urethra than men.
As such, bacteria have a shorter distance to travel through to get to the bladder and cause infection.
Also, in women, the urethra is closer to the rectum, which contains some bacteria that can cause UTIs.
Interstitial cystitis (IC)
Interstitial cystitis, also known as bladder pain syndrome, is a painful chronic condition that affects the bladder.
The condition causes long-term inflammation of the bladder leading to stiffening of the bladder wall and a reduced capacity of the bladder to expand. Bladder pain syndrome is more common in women than it is in men.
The exact cause of interstitial cystitis is not yet known, but symptoms can be aggravated or triggered by factors like stress, diet, infections, and the use of certain drugs.
Because chronic inflammation causes the bladder wall to stiffen and have a lower capacity for expansion, bladder pain from IC often gets worse as the bladder fills up. In women, the pain may also worsen during menstruation.
In addition to bladder pain, IC can cause symptoms such as:
- Frequent urination
- An urgent urge to urinate
- Pelvic pain
- Pain while having sex
A diagnosis of IC can only be made when other conditions that cause bladder symptoms – like infection and cancer – are ruled out.
Bladder stones are mineral lumps that can form when urine stays in the bladder for extended periods allowing minerals to clump together and crystallize.
Bladder stones are common in older men with enlarged prostate glands that can block the outflow of urine and allow it to stay in the bladder for longer periods.
The risk of bladder stones forming is also increased in people who have nerve damage that makes it difficult for them to empty their bladders completely.
These stones can irritate the wall of the bladder or block the flow of urine through the urethra and cause pain.
In addition, they can cause symptoms such as:
- Difficulty passing urine
- More frequent urination (especially at night)
- Blood in the urine
- Cloudy or dark urine
Bladder cancer occurs when cells in the bladder grow in a disordered and uncontrollable way. Because the bladder is made up of different cells and tissues, different types of cancers can come from it.
The most common type is transitional cell carcinoma, which originates from the deepest layer of tissue that lines the bladder.
Like with most other types of cancer, the exact cause of bladder cancer is not known. However, there are some known risk factors.
According to the American Cancer Society, smokers are two to three times more likely to develop bladder cancer than non-smokers.
Being male is also a risk factor, as bladder cancer is more common in men than it is in women. According to the American Cancer Society, it is the fourth most common type of cancer in men.
Another risk factor is age – most cases of bladder cancer are seen in people older than 55.
People with bladder cancer often do not feel pain or experience any other symptoms early on. However, some have symptoms like:
- Blood in the urine (the most common and often the first sign of bladder cancer)
- Urinating more frequently than usual
- A strong urge to urinate even when the bladder is not full
- Difficulty urinating or having a weak urinary stream
As bladder cancer advances, it can spread to other organs of the body and cause symptoms such as:
- Lower back pain
- Bone pain
- Weight loss
When to see a doctor
As shown above, most causes of bladder pain have similar signs and symptoms. The only sure way to know what is causing the symptoms is to see a healthcare provider.
While the large majority of people with bladder pain have a UTI and can easily be treated with antibiotics, some people with bladder pain may have a serious condition like cancer which is difficult to treat, especially when caught late.
As such, if you experience bladder pain, it is important to visit a doctor to get tested, find out exactly what is causing it, rule out serious conditions, and prevent complications.
The treatment of bladder pain depends on the specific cause:
Because they are caused by bacterial invasion, UTIs are treated with antibiotics. Your doctor might also prescribe some antipyretic drugs for you if you have a fever and some analgesic drugs to help relieve the pain.
Interstitial cystitis treatment
There is currently no cure for IC. However, there are several treatment options available to help those affected relieve pain and have a better quality of life. Treatment options include:
- Lifestyle modification: These include limiting alcohol consumption, quitting smoking, reducing stress, and adjusting your diet.
- Pain medication: For mild pain, over-the-counter analgesics such as aspirin and acetaminophen can help. For severe and/or persistent pain, prescription medications like tricyclic antidepressants and seizure medications may help your bladder relax and prevent pain.
Another option is pentosan polysulfate sodium (Elmiron). This is a drug approved by the FDA to treat IC. The way Elmiron helps treat IC is not fully understood, but it may work by creating a layer on the bladder wall that protects it from irritating chemicals in the urine.
- Bladder training: For people with IC who feel a constant urge to urinate, bladder training may help. This involves keeping records of when you go to the bathroom and gradually increasing the length of time between your trips to the bathroom.
- Bladder instillation: This involves using a small tube to insert fluids that contain medications such as heparin and steroids into your bladder. The fluid is held in the bladder for 15 minutes and released. The treatment can be repeated every week or twice a week for one to two months. Bladder instillation may work by helping to reduce inflammation.
- Surgery: Surgery is a last resort in cases where other treatment options do not provide relief. Options include bladder augmentation to enlarge the bladder, cystectomy to remove some or all of the bladder, or urinary diversion to change the path through which your urine flows.
Bladder stone treatment
Small bladder stones can sometimes pass out of the bladder on their own. However, larger stones that cannot pass on their own need to be removed via surgery. Options include:
- Cystolitholapaxy: This procedure involves using a thin tube with a camera (cystoscope) to look into the bladder and find the stone. Once the stone is found, devices such as ultrasound and lasers can be put through the cystoscope to crush the stone and break it into little pieces that can easily be flushed out of the bladder.
- Open bladder surgery: For stones that are too large to be broken into tiny pieces, a surgery where the bladder is cut open and the stone extracted might be needed.
Bladder cancer treatment
Depending on the stage and type of bladder cancer, treatment options include:
- Surgery: The type of surgery depends on how early the cancer is diagnosed. For those diagnosed at the very early stages, the tumor and some surrounding tissue may be removed. For more advanced cases, some or all of the bladder may be removed.
- Radiotherapy: This involves using high-energy radiation to kill cancerous cells. It can be used to treat bladder cancer at the early stages or to provide relief from symptoms in those with advanced bladder cancer.
- Chemotherapy: This involves the use of certain drugs to kill cancerous cells. Chemotherapy can be used to shrink a tumor before surgery or to clear up any remaining cancer cells after surgery. It can also be used in combination with radiotherapy in patients who cannot undergo surgery.
5 tips to relieve bladder pain
In addition to taking your prescribed medication, there are some things you can do to speed up recovery and prevent future episodes of bladder pain.
We discuss some of the most effective ones below:
1) Stay hydrated
If you have a burning sensation whenever you pee, drinking lots of water might sound counterintuitive.
More water equals more urination which leads to more pain, right? Wrong.
Drinking water helps to keep your urinary tract healthy and can speed up recovery. In the case of UTI, drinking lots of fluids may help to flush out the bacteria and help prevent future episodes.
With bladder stones, water could help you pass out small stones easily and prevent future occurrences. Dehydration, on the other hand, has the opposite effect.
2) Avoid holding your pee
This may be difficult if you have pain with urination. But, holding your pee can predispose you to or worsen the symptoms of UTIs and bladder stones.
If you have IC, it may also worsen the pain you feel as your bladder gets fuller.
3) Adjust your diet
Certain foods and drinks can irritate your bladder and worsen the pain. Some of them include coffee, citrus fruits, alcohol, carbonated drinks, and spicy foods.
4) Use probiotics
Probiotics may be helpful if you are experiencing bladder pain because of a UTI. Studies show eating foods that contain probiotics – e.g., yogurt – or taking probiotic supplements may help increase the number of good bacteria in your genitals and urinary tract and help prevent recurrent UTIs.
Also, if you are taking antibiotics, probiotics can help protect your gastrointestinal tract and prevent side effects like diarrhea.
5) Quit smoking
Smoking may worsen bladder pain, particularly in cases of interstitial cystitis. Smoking also increases the risk of bladder cancer and can cause coughing, which puts stress on the bladder and causes more pain.
From infection to cancer, bladder pain can be caused by a wide range of conditions. If you experience bladder pain, you should see a healthcare provider to rule out potentially fatal causes and to start appropriate treatment based on the cause.
Staying hydrated, not holding your pee, avoiding foods that can irritate your bladder, taking probiotics, and quitting smoking are all lifestyle modifications that can help you recover from conditions that cause bladder pain faster.