Kids' Stomach Pain May Mean Anxiety

Pediatricians, Parents Should Get Help for Children's Emotional Problems

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on April 05, 2004

April 5, 2004 -- Children with chronic stomach pain may actually be suffering from anxiety and depression.

Scores of children and adolescents -- nearly one in four -- have chronic stomach pain, writes researcher John V. Campo, MD, with the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

The problem becomes more prevalent as kids get older, especially among girls and children in lower income homes, he explains. In the overwhelming majority of children, there is no physical explanation for the stomach upsets. This has led some researchers to look for emotional problems in these kids, especially because they often miss school, and often suffer from anxiety and depression.

To better understand this pattern, Campo and his colleagues evaluated medical records of 80 children and adolescents -- 42 with chronic stomachaches (at least three episodes during a three-month period) and 38 without. They found that:

  • 81% of the stomachache group had either anxiety disorders or depression -- especially those aged 12 and under
  • 33 (79%) of those with chronic stomachaches suffered from an anxiety disorder, usually separation anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or social phobia.
  • 18 or (43%) of those with chronic stomachaches were diagnosed with some form of depression; 31% had severe depression.
  • Anxiety disorders usually started at age 9, and about three years before the pattern of stomachaches began.
  • Kids with stomachaches were significantly more likely to be disruptive in class and have other behavior problems.

Primary care doctors can expect that about 80% of children who have chronic stomach pain will have an anxiety disorder -- and that about 40% will also have depression, writes Campo. Earlier research has had similar results, he says. Campo's findings appear in the latest issue of the journal Pediatrics.

His study does not show anxiety disorders or depression as a direct cause of stomach pain, Campo writes. However, it shows a pattern that can help doctors treat young patients -- even helping to prevent chronic stomach pain -- by getting help for their anxiety or depression.

SOURCE: Campo, J. Pediatrics, April 2004: vol 113; pp 817-824.