Chronic, unexplained stomach pain in children is linked to increased likelihood of anxiety issues later in life

August 26, 2013

THE QUESTION In children, might stomach pain that has no known medical cause be a precursor to mood disorders as they grow up?

THIS STUDY involved 479 children, most 10 to 12 years old at the start of the study, including 332 with chronic or recurrent abdominal pain that had no known cause. By the time they were, on average, 20 years old, 51 percent of those who had stomach pain as children had developed an anxiety disorder, most often social anxiety (having an intense fear of being judged by others, inhibiting everyday interactions). By contrast, 20 percent of those who had not had stomach pain developed an anxiety disorder. Depression also was more common among those who had stomach pain when younger, having affected 40 percent of them, compared with 16 percent of the no-stomach-pain group. Overall, those whose stomach pain did not resolve had the highest risk for anxiety disorders, but even those whose pain had dissipated were more likely to have had an anxiety disorder than were those who had never had unexplained stomach pain in their youth.

WHO MAY BE AFFECTED? Children with stomach pain that has no medical cause. Although such pain can be caused by constipation, food allergies, appendicitis, inflammatory bowel disease, acid reflux and other ailments, sometimes doctors can find no medical explanation for a child’s pain.

CAVEATS The study identified a link between stomach pain and subsequent anxiety disorders, but it did not prove that the pain caused the anxiety issues. Whether treating anxiety in children would resolve their stomach pain was not investigated.

FIND THIS STUDY September issue of Pediatrics.


Children with unexplained belly aches were more likely to develop social anxiety, study says. (iStockphoto)

LEARN MORE ABOUT stomach pain in children at patients.gi.org (search for “functional abdominal pain”). Learn about anxiety disorders at nimh.nih.gov.

The research described in Quick Study comes from credible, peer-reviewed journals. Nonetheless, conclusive evidence about a treatment's effectiveness is rarely found in a single study. Anyone considering changing or beginning treatment of any kind should consult with a physician.

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