Study links kids’ stomach pains to underlying mental-health issues

The common complaint my belly hurts” by kids has a way of striking terror in the hearts of parents. Maybe the fears are not unfounded!

Tummy aches in kids that are often brushed aside as symptoms of nothing more sinister than gas or indigestion can be a sign of underlying health issues, suggests an intriguing new study.

According to experts, kids suffering from inexplicable, chronic stomach pains are at a high risk for developing an anxiety disorder in adulthood.

“A decade later, individuals who had stomach pain continued to have high rates of anxiety disorders, even if they no longer had stomach pain,” said study author Lynn Walker, a professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Link between stomach ache and future anxiety disorders assessed
In a bid to establish whether chronic stomach pains sans a clear medical cause in kids may be an indicator of anxiety disorders as they grow into adults, the researchers conducted a study.

They tracked 332 children with recurring stomach pain that was not linked to any root cause and compared them to 147 kids with no such problem.

The researchers assessed the participant’s mental health by the time they reached 20-years-old. Subjects were asked questions pertaining anxiety and/or depression symptoms via the phone or in person.

The analysis revealed roughly half of the kids (51 percent) who had experienced functional abdominal developed an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. In contrast, only 20 percent of the control group exhibited problems with anxiety.

Moreover, nearly 40 percent of the kids with recurring stomach pain were diagnosed with depression in later life as opposed to 16 percent without tummy aches.

The increased risk of anxiety and depression persisted even if the stomach pain eventually cleared up, though the link was more pronounced when the pain persisted into adulthood. The findings suggest the stomach aches may be a symptom of underlying mental-health issues, rather than a cause.

Lonnie Zeltzer, MD, director of the Pediatric Pain and Comfort Care Program at the University of California Los Angeles stated, “This study provides further rationale for not just treating children with abdominal pain with medication aimed at pain, since the psychiatric comorbidities of social anxiety, separation anxiety, and depression may be causing more problems with the everyday lives of children than the pain itself.”

The study was published in Pediatrics.