Children with chronic stomach pains are at high risk for anxiety disorders in adolescence and young adulthood, a new study has found (goo.gl/I2UvHP ), suggesting that parents may wish to have their children evaluated at some point for anxiety.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University tracked 332 children with recurring stomachaches that could not be traced to a physical cause — so-called functional abdominal pain — comparing them as they reached young adulthood with 147 children who had never had such stomachaches.
About half the teenagers and young adults who had had functional abdominal pain as children developed an anxiety disorder at some point, compared with 20 percent of the control group, the researchers found. The vulnerability to anxiety persisted into adulthood even if the pain had disappeared, although the risk was highest if the pain continued.
Forty percent of the children with functional abdominal pain went on to experience depression, compared with 16 percent of those who had never had these stomachaches.
The study was published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
“What this study shows is a strong connection between functional abdominal pain and anxiety persists into adulthood, and it drives home the point that this isn’t by chance,” said Dr. John V. Campo, chairman of the department of psychiatry at Ohio State University, who was not involved in the new study….
Chronic abdominal pain affects 8 percent to 25 percent of school-age children. The problem can lead to school absences and take a toll on families.
“Somebody might say, ‘Of course they have mental issues or they are emotionally distressed — it’s because of the pain,’ ” said Lynn S. Walker, senior author of the study and director of the division of adolescent health at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.
“But we found even if the pain went away, these adolescents and young adults still have anxiety,” Dr. Walker said. “So maybe we need to treat their anxiety.”
The state-of-the-art treatment for functional abdominal pain is rehabilitative, focused on getting patients to participate in daily activities despite their stomachaches. “There’s no question that there are triggers for the pain, but the problem is in the perception of the pain and adaptation to the pain,” said Dr. Samuel Nurko, director of a functional abdominal pain center at Children’s Hospital Boston.
Dr. Nurko compared the pain to a light on a dimmer switch, which psychological techniques can help children control. “You don’t take away the pain,” he said. “You ‘dim’ it to be able to cope better.”
The new study underscores the importance of screening children with the condition for anxiety or depression, the authors said. Anxious children tend to be good children who are concerned about doing their best, Dr. Walker said, and parents may be flummoxed by the suggestion that such a child could be grappling with a mental health issue.
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