Back-To-School Belly-Aches May Be More Than Just Nerves

September 30, 2008

As students settle back into their desks for another school year, parents, school nurses and pediatricians respond to increased complaints of stomach pain.  Many of these seasonal belly-aches are dismissed as nothing more than a case of the back-to-school blues.  However, in many instances the pain kids feel is the result of a complicated and often misdiagnosed medical condition that researchers at Nationwide Childrens Hospital now believe could be helped with the use of medications typically used to treat depression.

Functional abdominal pain is one of the most common reasons children are referred to our gastrointestinal clinic, said Carlo Di Lorenzo, MD, chief of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at Nationwide Childrens Hospital and a faculty member at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.  Each year, when students return to class, we see an increase in the number of patients complaining of abdominal pain.

Functional abdominal pain is stomach pain that is not associated with any evidence of a physical disease or tissue damage.  The condition is estimated to affect as many as 10 percent of children, many of whom also have a history of depression, anxiety, migraine headaches and/or fatigue.  The pain also tends to occur more frequently during times of stress and anxiety, including during school, sports and other activities.  Although the cause of the pain isnt clear, the pain itself is very real.

It really does hurt, and these kids really do suffer.  Their parents suffer too, because they are often terribly worried that something very serious may be wrong and they see how the symptoms can interfere with the childs life, said John Campo, MD, chief of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and a pediatrician at Nationwide Childrens Hospital. We know that as a group, these kids miss more school than unaffected kids.  They dont do as well in school, either.

Dr. Campo, Dr. Di Lorenzo and investigators at The Research Institute at Nationwide Childrens Hospital are now looking into ways to give kids some relief from the chronic pain.  Currently, patients are taught coping techniques, such as relaxation training and guided imagery, to help manage the pain.  Now researchers believe the use of medications, traditionally used as antidepressants, may help lessen the pain, or prevent it altogether.

Clinical trials are underway at Nationwide Childrens Hospital to test the effectiveness of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in the treatment of functional abdominal pain.  SSRIs affect the handling of serotonin in the body.

People have thought about serotonin as being important in anxiety and depression, said Dr. Campo, also a member of the faculty at The Ohio State University College of Medicine.  While thats true, whats really interesting is that 95 percent of our bodys serotonin is in our intestinal track.

Serotonin transmits messages of pain to the brain and the local nervous system in the stomach.  Researchers hope that changing the way the body handles serotonin may help ease functional abdominal pain.  So far, a type of SSRI, known as citalopram, has shown promise.  In a preliminary study of the medication, citalopram appeared to ease abdominal pain in approximately 80 percent of cases, but Dr. Campo stresses that more research is needed.

Doctors recommend that children with recurrent or persistent abdominal pain be checked out by a doctor. Medical treatment should be sought immediately if a child experiences blood in vomit or bowel movements, fevers, weight loss or persistent vomiting.

Although functional abdominal pain tends to be more common in girls (especially after puberty), it affects both boys and girls.  It often develops during two peak times in a childs development:  between 4 and 6 years of age or later in life, during late childhood or early adolescence.

*Nationwide Childrens Hospital is still accepting patients for studies involving functional abdominal pain.  For more information, contact Maureen Maher-Bridge by phone at 614-722-6432 or by email at Maureen.Maher-Bridge@NationwideChildrens.org.

About Nationwide Children's Hospital

Named to the Top 10 Honor Roll on U.S. News & World Report ‘s 2018-19 list of “Best Children’s Hospitals,” Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of America’s largest not-for-profit freestanding pediatric health care systems providing wellness, preventive, diagnostic, treatment and rehabilitative care for infants, children and adolescents, as well as adult patients with congenital disease. Nationwide Children’s has a staff of more than 13,000 providing state-of-the-art pediatric care during more than 1.4 million patient visits annually. As home to the Department of Pediatrics of The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Nationwide Children’s physicians train the next generation of pediatricians and pediatric specialists. The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of the Top 10 National Institutes of Health-funded freestanding pediatric research facilities. More information is available at NationwideChildrens.org.