Researchers tracked 332 children between the ages of eight and 17 who visited a doctor for “functional abdominal pain”–tummy troubles that are otherwise medically unexplained. They also tracked 147 children from the same area schools without stomach problems. The study, which was published in the journal Pediatrics this week, was conducted by researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical School in Nashville, Tenn.
While the results aren’t exactly surprising–especially to those of us with anxious, stomachache-y kids–the numbers themselves are quite striking.
At age 20, the study participants were interviewed by the researchers about other diagnoses.
- 51 percent of those with a history of stomach pain had been diagnosed with anxiety, compared with only 20 percent of those without stomach pain history
- 30 percent of those with a history of pain currently met the criteria for anxiety, compared with only 12 percent of those without stomach pain history
- 40 percent of those with a history of stomach pain had been depressed at some point, compared with 16 percent of those without stomach pain history
- 40 percent of those with a history of functional abdominal pain still had gastrointestinal problems
The researchers didn’t track what kinds of treatments the children received. They also didn’t pinpoint whether the anxiety came first, or the stomach pain–probably because that’s a total chicken-and-egg question.
“People who are anxious tend to be very vigilant to threat, scanning their environment or their body for something that might be wrong,” lead study author Lynn Walker told Reuters. She added that kids can get into a “vicious cycle” of staying home from school due to stomachache, and then falling behind in school, which makes them more anxious.
Which is basically the story of second grade for one of my kids. Curse you, Nervous Stomach!
Of course, this study only looks at what doctors call “functional abdominal pain”–stomach pain that’s otherwise medically unexplained. In other words, it doesn’t even look for a link between anxiety and medically explained abdominal pain caused by acid reflux, constipation, encopresis, food allergies, you name it–any of which might be BFFs with anxiety.
As the American Academy of Pediatrics points out, there can be many reasons that kids could have abdominal pain. If your child’s tummy troubles are connected with anxiety, which the AAP refers to as “emotional upset” (because the word anxiety causes parents too much anxiety?), your pediatrician should be able to help you find ways to talk to your child about what’s upsetting him or her. If that doesn’t help, says the AAP, your pediatrician may refer you to a child therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist.
In our family’s experience, here’s what has worked: treat both the anxiety and the stomach symptoms, because they’re both very real, and one leads to the other. And yes, for us that means we have both a pediatric gastroenterologist and a child therapist.
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto)
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