A survey directed at determining the natural history of interstitial cystitis was conducted at our clinic. Information on demographics, risk factors, symptoms, pain and psychosocial factors was elicited from 374 patients who satisfied the National Institute of Arthritis, Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases criteria for interstitial cystitis and had all been diagnosed as having interstitial cystitis by a urologist. With regard to demographics, patients were predominantly female (89.8%) and white (94.1%), with a mean age of 53.8 +/- 0.7 years (standard error) and age at the first symptoms of 42.5 +/- 0.8 years. Information on 25 potential risk factors included 44.4% of the women reporting hysterectomy, 38.2% of the patients having strong sensitivities or allergic reactions to medication and only 2.7% being diabetic. With regard to interstitial cystitis symptoms, frequency and urgency were reported by 91.7% and 89.3% of the patients, respectively, while pelvic pain, pelvic pressure and bladder spasms were reported by more than 60% of respondents and burning by 56%. Location and degree of pain were also reported. Urination relieved or lessened interstitial cystitis pain for 73.6% of the patients and medication was effective for 46.8%. Other behaviors (for example hot baths, heating pads, lying down or sitting) were less effective. Conversely, stress, constrictive clothing and intercourse increased interstitial cystitis pain in more than 50% of the patients. In addition, acidic, alcoholic or carbonated beverages, and coffee or tea increased interstitial cystitis pain in more than 50% of the patients. More than 60% of the patients were unable to enjoy usual activities or were excessively fatigued and 53.7% reported depression. Travel, employment, leisure activities and sleeping were adversely affected in more than 80% of the patients. Pain location and degree differed significantly between patients with and without ulcers in the bladder. In addition, there was an apparent plateau in the frequency and urgency among patients after approximately 5 years with symptoms.