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Abdominal Pain in Kids: Anxiety-Related or Something More?

It’s not uncommon for kids to complain of abdominal pain around the start of the school year, before a big test, sports game or performance — when their stress and anxiety levels can be at an all-time high.

Dr. Nicole Sawangpont Pattamanuch, a gastroenterologist at Seattle Children’s, breaks down the symptoms of abdominal pain related to stress and anxiety, recommends coping techniques for kids to alleviate their discomfort, and shares red flags to help families determine if there is something more concerning to their child’s symptoms.

Breaking down the differences in symptoms

In Pattamanuch’s practice, she sees many children with functional abdominal pain.

“These kids are still eating and gaining weight normally. They may experience pain, but overall they are functioning well, going to school and sleeping at night.”

In an initial visit with a child who is facing abdominal pain issues, with symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, and nausea and/or vomiting, Pattamanuch always starts by asking parents if they think stress is a factor. This includes home, school and social stressors.

“Around half of the parents I meet with are usually aware that their kids are undergoing a lot of stress but are simply doing their due diligence to make sure they’re not missing any underlying medical issues their child may have,” said Pattamanuch. “The other half may not have a sense that their child’s pain is connected to stress, even though I’m concerned there are indeed psychological issues present. In these cases, it’s important that we further investigate and consider getting a counselor involved to screen for stressors.”

While not as common, Pattamanuch says the red flags that may signal there is an underlying disease present involves children presenting symptoms such with weight loss, persistent vomiting and diarrhea, or blood in their vomit or stool.

“Symptoms that are causing severe dysfunction are a huge cause for concern,” said Pattamanuch. “At this point, it’s very clear that they need to be medically evaluated as soon as possible.”

Coping techniques and resources to help kids thrive

With functional abdominal pain, there isn’t necessarily a definite treatment or medication that will cure kids’ discomfort.

“It’s more about helping these kids learn coping techniques and identify the triggers that exacerbate their symptoms,” said Pattamanuch. “Children may need more screening for depression or anxiety from a mental health professional.”

Pattamanuch often works with kids on simple techniques they can practice at home and implement into their daily lives to alleviate their recurring abdominal pain and discomfort. These include:

  • Peppermint: Brewing a cup of peppermint tea can help soothe the stomach and alleviate feelings of nausea.
  • Practicing mindfulness: Laying down in a quiet room and listening to the sound of their heartbeat and breathing can allow kids to tune out stressors that are running through their head. It can also help bring down their blood pressure and heartrate.
  • Regular exercise: It’s common for kids to withdraw from being active due to discomfort. If they become more isolated, it could make them feel worse. Daily exercise can help kids release their stress, be more alert during the day, perform better in school and sleep better at night.

“I don’t think we talk enough about the important connection of our minds to our ‘bellies,’” said Pattamanuch. “The more we educate families on how it works, the better the chances of kids being able to learn the coping skills needed for them to live happy and healthy lives.”

Excerpted from “Abdominal Pain in Kids: Anxiety-Related or Something More?” from Seattle Children’s Hospital online newsletter On the Pulse. Read the full article.

Source: Seattle Children’s Hospital | Abdominal Pain in Kids: Anxiety-Related or Something More?, https://pulse.seattlechildrens.org/abdominal-pain-in-kids-anxiety-related-or-something-more | © 1995—2019 Seattle Children’s Hospital

Do you have concerns about your child? CHC can help. To schedule an evaluation or to get advice about your child’s challenges, call or email a CHC Clinical Services Coordinator at 650.688.3625 or careteam@chconline.org

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