Radiation Cystitis and Hyperbaric Management

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Continuing Education Activity

Radiation cystitis describes the inflammation and resultant cellular destruction of the bladder that occurs as an adverse effect of the radiation used in the treatment of cancers. Typically, radiation cystitis occurs after radiation of the pelvic region, which may be required for treatment of primary bladder cancer or treatment of tumors in regions around the bladder, colon, rectum, ovaries, uterus, and prostate. Damage from radiation can be acute, occurring less than six months from completion of radiation therapy, or delayed, occurring more than six months after completion of radiation therapy. Severity of functional impairment and irritation vary. Milder symptoms may include increased frequency, urgency, and dysuria and may resolve with time. Severe symptoms may include urinary incontinence, gross hematuria, and progression of damage to include fistula formation or necrotic bladder tissue. This activity reviews the pathophysiology, evaluation, and management of radiation cystitis and highlights the role of the interprofessional team in caring for patients affected by this condition.


  • Identify the etiology of radiation cystitis.
  • Describe the proper evaluation of of radiation cystitis.
  • List the treatment and management options available for radiation cystitis.
  • Describe interprofessional team strategies for improving care coordination and communication to advance the prevention and management of radiation cystitis and improve outcomes for patients.


Radiation Cystitis is a term used to describe the side effect of inflammation and subsequent destruction to the normal anatomy of the urinary bladder at the cellular level after the use of radiation in the treatment of multiple cancer types, including, most commonly, pelvic cancers. Radiation therapy can be used for primary bladder cancer as well as for tumors in many organs surrounding the bladder, such as the colon, rectum, ovaries, uterus, and prostate. When the primary tumor is not located in the bladder, this leads to unintentional radiation exposure to the healthy bladder tissue.[1] 

Damage from the treatment can either be acute (less than six months from radiation therapy completion) or delayed (more than six months after treatment) and can have varying levels of irritation and functional impairment to the bladder mucosa. If on the mild end of the spectrum, symptoms may include increased frequency, urgency, and possibly some dysuria. Infection should be ruled out with a urinalysis which may show microscopic hematuria. These symptoms can resolve over time.[1]

On the other end of the spectrum, patient's may experience symptoms such as urinary incontinence, gross hematuria, and progression of damage to the extent of fistula formation or necrotic bladder tissue. The treatment varies on the degree of symptoms. Overall, radiation cystitis can be detrimental to a patient's wellbeing after already having gone through a great deal in regards to cancer treatment.[1][2][3] Providers are becoming more aware of the drastic effects a dysfunctional bladder can have on overall quality of life, but more investigation needs to be performed to best tailor radiation therapy while avoiding side effects such as this one.


Radiation is useful for cancer treatment due to its ability to interfere with DNA synthesis and stop rapidly dividing cancer cells from completing mitosis. It also has this same effect on healthy, normally dividing cells surrounding the tumor. Another effect is decreasing blood supply to the irradiated area by causing edema and fibrosis of the vessels (obliterative endarteritis) which can, in turn, lead to necrosis of tissue reliant on those vessels. [4]


Variation in the incidence of radiation cystitis exists in the current literature. In general, the incidence of delayed radiation effects is estimated at 5% to 10%, and severe hematuria occurs 5% to 8% of the time. Differences in tumor type, the extent of cancer, type of radiation used, and total amount of radiation used create a wide range within the literature.

The average duration from completion of radiation therapy to the onset of symptoms is approximately 31.8 months. It develops more commonly in males than females (2.8:1).[1]


It is held that the energy from the radiation affects three different components of the bladder: (1) It affects the urothelium by disrupting tight junctions, increasing elements of the cytoplasm, affecting DNA replication, and causing cellular edema. Once the mucosal cells die and shed, urine can then irritate submucosal cells. (2) It affects bladder vasculature by causing edema and perivascular fibrosis. (3) Finally, radiation affects the detrusor muscle by causing vascular ischemia, increasing fibroblasts and collagen deposition, and causing smooth muscle edema.[2][1]

History and Physical

Acute complaints after completing radiation therapy may include frequency, urgency, dysuria, and hematuria (microscopic or macroscopic). Chronic effects can occur months to years later and are caused by fibrosis. In addition to the symptoms already mentioned, chronic effects can include urinary incontinence from detrusor dysfunction, hydronephrosis, mucosal ulceration, and fistula formation.[1]


The level of severity of symptoms is graded by Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG) as follows:

  • Grade 1 - any evidence of epithelial damage or atrophy, telangiectasia, microscopic hematuria
  • Grade 2 - any moderate frequency, generalized telangiectasia, intermittent macroscopic hematuria, intermittent urinary incontinence
  • Grade 3 - any severe frequency or urgency, severe telangiectasia, persistent incontinence, reduced bladder capacity < 150 mL, frequent hematuria
  • Grade 4 - any necrosis, fistula, hemorrhagic cystitis, reduced bladder capacity < 100 mL, refractory incontinence requiring either catheter or surgical intervention [1]

Workup focuses on ruling out more common etiologies of urinary symptoms. Urinalysis with urine culture and cytology should always be ordered initially to rule out bacterial infection and cancer. If the patient presents with a history of hematuria, a complete blood count (CBC) should be ordered to assess hemoglobin, white blood cell, and platelet counts. Additionally, if the patient has gross hematuria, it is important to assess volume status as well as order prothrombin time (PT) and activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT) levels. It is also important to assess renal function. A chemistry panel should be ordered to examine electrolyte levels, BUN levels, and creatinine.

Additionally, to further assess the extent of the damage, cystoscopy and renal ultrasound can be utilized. Cystoscopy may show white mucosa with telangiectasia.[3]

Treatment / Management

Treatment of radiation cystitis varies depending on the severity of symptoms. For grade 1 and grade 2 types, symptomatic relief is typically all that is necessary. If frequency and urgency are the predominant symptoms, anticholinergic medications can be used for relief. Additionally, bladder irrigation is usually considered the first-line treatment in all grades of the disease and can be used to remove clots if hematuria is present.[5] Fulguration with alum or silver nitrate may be used inside the bladder as well. [2]

Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) is another form of noninvasive treatment that has become more prevalent in recent years. This therapy not only targets symptom relief but also has the capability of stopping the progression of the pathologic process. HBOT stimulates angiogenesis, which reestablishes blood flow to areas in danger of necrosis, and helps maintain bladder functionality. Studies have shown a complete response rate ranging from 27% to 100% of patients studied, with most showing more than 75% of patients with a complete response.[3][6]

One study showed that, even with milder symptoms,  patients treated within six months of hematuria onset had  96% complete or partial symptomatic resolution whereas those treated after six months had but a 66% response rate. This is supportive of (albeit not definitive for) the early use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy. [7]

More invasive measures may be necessary if late-stage complications occur or if the radiation cystitis is resistant to more conservative methods. Such situations include persistent hematuria, fistulas, severe detrusor contraction, or hydronephrosis. Failure of more conservative measures leading to cystectomy is associated with a high risk of complications and mortality. Severe complications in almost half (42%) and 90-day mortality is reported to be 16%.

Differential Diagnosis

  • Adhesions from prior surgery 
  • Degenerative joint disease
  • Diverticulitis
  • Dysfunctional voiding
  • Gastrointestinal neoplasm 
  • Hernia 
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Pelvic floor myalgia
  • Vulvodynia

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

Improving outcomes in cases of radiation cystitis can be aided greatly in the early detection of symptoms and early initiation of treatment options while symptoms are less severe. Not only does this condition affect the patient quality of life, but it also affects the caregiver's quality of life as well. These patient will presumably be following up with multiple medical specialists in different fields, nurses, rehabilitation professionals, social workers, and possibly other members of the medical field as well. It is important for medical professionals in all fields be aware of the signs of symptoms of radiation cystitis in order to improve patient safety and avoid adverse events. However, at this time, management options have been observed in the form of small RCT, small cohort studies, and case studies. [8]



7/17/2023 9:08:25 PM



Browne C, Davis NF, Mac Craith E, Lennon GM, Mulvin DW, Quinlan DM, Mc Vey GP, Galvin DJ. A Narrative Review on the Pathophysiology and Management for Radiation Cystitis. Advances in urology. 2015:2015():346812. doi: 10.1155/2015/346812. Epub 2015 Dec 22     [PubMed PMID: 26798335]

Level 3 (low-level) evidence


Mallick S, Madan R, Julka PK, Rath GK. Radiation Induced Cystitis and Proctitis - Prediction, Assessment and Management. Asian Pacific journal of cancer prevention : APJCP. 2015:16(14):5589-94     [PubMed PMID: 26320421]


Liem X, Saad F, Delouya G. A Practical Approach to the Management of Radiation-Induced Hemorrhagic Cystitis. Drugs. 2015 Sep:75(13):1471-82. doi: 10.1007/s40265-015-0443-5. Epub     [PubMed PMID: 26271398]


Niezgoda JA, Serena TE, Carter MJ. Outcomes of Radiation Injuries Using Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy: An Observational Cohort Study. Advances in skin & wound care. 2016 Jan:29(1):12-19     [PubMed PMID: 26650092]

Level 3 (low-level) evidence


Cooper JS, Allinson P, Winn D, Keim L, Sippel J, Shalberg P, Fowler K. Continuous bladder irrigation in the monoplace hyperbaric chamber: Two case reports. Undersea & hyperbaric medicine : journal of the Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society, Inc. 2015 Sep-Oct:42(5):419-23     [PubMed PMID: 26591981]

Level 3 (low-level) evidence


Ribeiro de Oliveira TM, Carmelo Romão AJ, Gamito Guerreiro FM, Matos Lopes TM. Hyperbaric oxygen therapy for refractory radiation-induced hemorrhagic cystitis. International journal of urology : official journal of the Japanese Urological Association. 2015 Oct:22(10):962-6. doi: 10.1111/iju.12857. Epub 2015 Jul 5     [PubMed PMID: 26146963]


Chong KT, Hampson NB, Corman JM. Early hyperbaric oxygen therapy improves outcome for radiation-induced hemorrhagic cystitis. Urology. 2005 Apr:65(4):649-53     [PubMed PMID: 15833500]


Zwaans BMM, Lamb LE, Bartolone S, Nicolai HE, Chancellor MB, Klaudia SW. Cancer survivorship issues with radiation and hemorrhagic cystitis in gynecological malignancies. International urology and nephrology. 2018 Oct:50(10):1745-1751. doi: 10.1007/s11255-018-1970-2. Epub 2018 Aug 21     [PubMed PMID: 30132277]

Level 2 (mid-level) evidence