Digestive Topics : Functional Abdominal Pain
Abdominal Pain - Functional
Children who complain of stomachaches for over three months are likely to have functional abdominal pains. Download the GIKids Functional Abdominal Pain Fact Sheet to understand more about diagnosing and coping with Functional Abdominal Pain in your child.
Revised October 2011
Functional Abdominal Pain
What is functional abdominal pain, and why does it happen?
Most otherwise-healthy children who repeatedly complain of stomachaches for two months or more have functional abdominal pain. The term “functional” refers to the fact that there is no blockage, inflammation or infection causing the discomfort. Nevertheless, the pain is very real, and is due to extra sensitivity of the digestive organs, sometimes combined with changes in gastrointestinal movement patterns. Your child’s intestine has a complicated system of nerves and muscles that helps move food forward and carry out digestion. In some children, the nerves become very sensitive, and pain is experienced even during normal intestinal functions. The pain can cause your child to cry, make his/her face pale or red, and cause him/her to break into a sweat. This digestive tract sensitivity can be triggered by a variety of things, such as a viral or bacterial infection, stress, or an episode of constipation. Other family members may have a history of similar problems. Because of the pain, children often stop their usual school and play activities. Fortunately, despite the recurrent episodes of pain, normal growth and general good health continue.
How common is functional abdominal pain?
Functional pain is very common. About 10 – 15% of school aged children will report episodes of recurrent pain. Another 15% experience pain, but do not go to the doctor for it.
How is functional abdominal pain diagnosed?
A detailed history of how the pain started, how it progressed, its location, and other associated factors can often suggest a diagnosis of functional pain. In functional pain, growth is good and the physical exam is normal. Basic blood, urine and stool tests are often performed to screen for other conditions that can cause recurrent pain. X-rays, other imaging studies, extensive lab tests and endoscopy are only recommended for children whose history, exam or basic lab results don’t fit with the diagnosis of functional pain. Your doctor will also follow your child to see if any changes take place which would suggest a different problem.
How is functional abdominal pain treated?
You, your doctor and your child can partner to put you and your child, rather than the pain, back in charge of your child’s life. Identifying and managing your child’s pain triggers, such as constipation, stress or lactose intolerance often helps reduce the pain. Also, with your help your child can learn to avoid focusing on the pain. There are a variety of specific actions for handling pain episodes, such as breathing techniques, that can be taught to your child. As a parent wanting to know if your child is having pain, a good approach is to observe your child’s behavior rather than asking if he/she is in pain. It is important to prevent the pain from becoming a reason for missing school, changing your child’s social activities or becoming the center of everyone’s attention at home. Even when the pain persists, it is reassuring to learn that this is a known condition, and that it is not dangerous. Being positive about getting better will send the right signals to your child. Medications may be helpful for some children with functional abdominal pain. These and other specific approaches suitable for your child can be discussed with your physician.
IMPORTANT REMINDER: This information from the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (NASPGHAN) is intended only to provide general information and not as a definitive basis for diagnosis or treatment in any particular case. It is very important that you consult your doctor about your specific condition.