Childhood Stomach Aches Linked to Adult Anxiety

Study: children with chronic stomach aches at risk
Childhood Stomach Aches Linked to Adult Anxiety

If your child has recurring stomachaches that can’t be traced to a physical cause — known as “functional abdominal pain” — a new study finds the child may be at higher risk for anxiety disorder as a young adult.

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The good news is that if your child has chronic stomachaches, there are ways to help manage the pain.

Study finds link between physical and emotional distress

Vanderbilt University researchers tracked more than 400 children and followed up with them as adolescents or young adults. Some of the kids had functional abdominal pain and some didn’t.

Katie Lamparyk, PsyD, did not take part in the study but is a child psychologist. She says, “They looked at children who had functional abdominal pain in their childhood. Around half of those kids had anxiety in the time that they reached adolescence. And a third of those adolescents and adults were still struggling with anxiety.”

How do you know if your child has functional abdominal pain?

Dr. Lamparyk says if parents are concerned that their child may have functional abdominal pain, they should track the symptoms and look for relationships between the pain episodes and what else is going on in the child’s life:

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  • Is the pain worse during periods of stress?  Do they improve over weekends or holidays?
  • Do the symptoms allow the child to avoid a stressor, such as staying home from school on a day of a test?
  • Does there not seem to be a medical cause for the stomach complaints?

How to help kids cope with pain

Dr. Lamparyk suggests strategies for parents of kids who suffer from functional abdominal pain:

Encourage your child to maintain or return to all normal activities. These can include school, sports, extracurricular activities, play-dates — even homework and chores. All these activities can be healthy distractions. “More importantly, they help to minimize the escape/avoidance cycle that may perpetuate the pain and actually contribute to symptoms worsening over time,” says Dr. Lamparyk.

Don’t ask your child if she is in pain. When you focus on pain it increases, but it improves when you’re distracted from it, says Dr. Lamparyk. “If you ask your child if she’s in pain, she’ll scan her body looking for the pain and find it. If she happens to be distracted from the pain at that moment, we want that moment to be continued.”

Make sure your child gets enough sleep. Chronic pain and impaired sleep are directly related. Make sure your child has a regular bedtime, a relaxing environment to sleep in and uses the bed only for sleeping (not TV, homework or other activities).

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Reduce anxiety. Anxiety worsens pain — especially stomachaches. Dr. Lamparyk suggests minimizing your child’s anxiety by working through stressors and not avoiding them, helping him to correctly identify and express his emotions and develop adaptive ways of coping with stress, such as talking to an adult, journaling or distractions.

Get professional help. “If abdominal pain or anxiety starts to interfere with your child’s functioning in daily activities, such as missing a lot of school or not being able to participate in social events, it’s time to get help,” says Dr. Lamparyk.

She adds it’s important to address both the physical and emotional aspects of the symptoms. Gastroenterologists, psychologists and nutritionists can work together to address factors contributing to your child’s pain.

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