Irritable Bladder – Meaning, Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Most people are accustomed to what can be termed as normal bladder habit. This includes the urge to urinate several times in a day with passing urine anywhere from 5 to 10 times within a 24 hour period. There is no discomfort or pain when urinating and the urine is passed out with relative ease.

The color and sometimes even the odor of urine may vary depending on dietary and lifestyle factors but there is no significant deviation on a day-to-day basis. However, there are times when urinary habits may be considered abnormal andmay be accompanied by other symptoms like pain or burning when urinating, difficulty urinating and even blood in the urine.

What is irritable bladder?

Irritable bladder is not a formal medical diagnosis. It is a broad term that is used to refer to any form of bladder irritation symptoms due to various bladder conditions like cystitis (inflamed bladder). However, most of the time irritable bladder is a term used to describe bladder spasms. It should not be confused with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which is a medical diagnosis for a functional bowel disorder.

Bladder spasms are a specific medical condition where the muscles of the bladder contract suddenly and often forcefully. However, most bladder conditions present with similar signs and symptoms. From a non-medical perspective, this may be referred to as an irritable bladder.  Therefore the various conditions that could be broadly referred to as irritable bladder have been discussed under the causes of irritable bladder, including bladder spasms.

Signs and Symptoms

As with any condition, the signs and symptoms of a particular condition is largely related to the functions of the organ in question. The urinary bladder stores urine until it has to be passed out during urination. Urine produced in the kidneys are passed down the ureters to the bladder. The muscles of the bladder wall contract forcefully to push the urine out of the bladder, through the urethra and into the environment.

  • Lower abdominal and/or pelvic discomfort and pain
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Frequent urination or little to no urine output
  • Pain or burning when urinating
  • Pus, blood and/or protein in the urine
  • Urethral discharge
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Persistent urge to urinate even after passing urine
  • Sensation of fullness/pressure in the bladder even after urinating

Depending on the condition that causes an irritated bladder, one or more of these symptoms are present. It can overlap to a large degree among the various bladder diseases and disorders. Therefore it can be difficult to differentiate among these bladder problems solely on the signs and symptoms. Medical attention is always necessary so that the underlying cause can be accurately identified, often after conducting various diagnostic investigations.

Causes of Irritable Bladder

The different bladder conditions that may cause symptoms that can be termed as bladder irritation have been discussed below. Always seek medical attention to identify the exact cause.


Cystitis refers to inflammation of the bladder. Most of the time this is caused by an infection (infectious cystitis). It often arises as part of urinary tract infections (UTIs) which starts in urethra and spreads upwards to the bladder. Infectious cystitis is more common in females due to the shorter urethra. Pain, disturbances in urinary habit and blood in the urine are among the common symptoms. Fever is more likely with a kidney infection.

Read more on bladder infection.

Another type of cystitis that is due to unknown causes is interstitial cystitis. It is believed to be due to bladder irritation caused by the urine within the bladder or even autoimmune and allergic factors. Radiation cystitis is a type of bladder inflammation caused by radiation exposure, often as a part of cancer treatment. Most of the time this appears similar to infectious cystitis and can be difficult to differentiate without medical tests.

Bladder Cancer

Bladder is one of the most common types of cancer in the United States that is not specific to males or females. However, it tends to be far more common in men. The malignancy may start in the bladder cells or it can spread to the bladder from cancer elsewhere in the body. Initially there may be few signs or symptoms that may differ from other bladder problems. Blood in the urine usually without pain is the most common early symptom.

Bladder Stones

Bladder stones are hard masses that form from the urine in the bladder. It is more likely to occur in people who have urinary tract infections, are dehydrated or when there is some problem that hampers proper emptying of the bladder (bladder outlet obstruction). This allows the substances dissolved in the urine to precipitate and form a stone. Pain, difficulty urinating and frequent urination are some of the common symptoms.

Neurogenic Bladder

Neurogenic bladder is a condition that arises from problems with the nerves that control the bladder. These nerves may be damaged or abnormal from birth but often the problem arises during the course of life. Spinal cord injuries, stroke, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and tumors of the nervous system are some of the possible causes. Without properly functioning nerves, emptying of the bladder can be affected to varying degrees.

Bladder Spasms

Bladder spasms is where the muscles of the bladder contract suddenly and forcefully to the point that urine may be forced out of the bladder. It may occur for various reasons, such as injury or infection of the bladder, nervous system disorders, medication, surgery to the pelvic area and may sometimes be due to unknown reasons. It is also referred to as overactive bladder syndrome and marked by episodes of sudden bladder pain, urging and incontinence.

Read more on bladder spasms.

Treatment of Irritable Bladder

There is no specific treatment for bladder irritation. The choice of treatment for an irritable bladder depends on the underlying cause. For example, antibiotics may be required for bacterial cystitis while bladder cancr may require surgery, chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

The treatment for bladder spasms, which is often considered to be synonymous with an irritable bladder, includes a combination of dietary and lifestyle changes along with pelvic floor exercises. Medication and electrotherapy is reserved for moderate to severe cases of overactive bladder.

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