Childhood stomach aches may lead to anxiety, depression as an adult

Stomach aches may be a normal part of life for some children, but a new study shows that unexplained abdominal pain at an early age may cause anxiety or depression come adulthood.

Research published online Aug. 12 in Pediatrics shows that 51 percent of children who had abdominal pain as children also had an anxiety disorder sometime during their lifetime. Thirty percent had a current diagnosis at the time they were surveyed.

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

For comparison, only 20 percent of people who did not have abdominal issues when they were a kid had an anxiety disorder during their lifetime.

The authors pointed out that between eight and 25 percent of all children experience chronic stomach pain without a known medical cause like an infection or blockage, which is known as "functional abdominal pain."

"It's very prevalent, and it's one of the most common reasons that children and adolescents end up in their pediatrician's office. It's one of the most common reasons kids are missing school," Dr. Eva Szigethy, head of the Medical Coping Clinic at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center, said to Reuters. She was not involved in the study.

For the study, researchers looked at 332 children who visited a doctor for unexplained stomach pain when they were between the ages of eight and 17. They also followed 147 kids from the same schools that did not report stomach issues.

The researchers caught up with the kids when they were around 20 to see if they had any symptoms of anxiety or depression.

In addition to the anxiety findings, researchers also discovered that 40 percent of adults who had abdominal pain as child had depression during their lifetime. Only 16 percent of adults in the comparison group had the disorder at one point and time.

Szigethy said a link between anxiety and pain wasn't a huge leap, especially because they are often observed together in doctor's offices. She added that further studies should look at how  kids were treated for anxiety or stomach pain, and whether that had an effect on their mental health as adults.

"We've noticed clinically that often the anxiety does predate the onset of pain," she said.

The researchers call on parents to not keep their kid out of school for a stomach ache if a doctor gives him or her a clean bill of health.

"If no significant disease is found, parents should encourage their children to continue their regular activities even if they are having pain or anticipate that they might have pain," Walker said. "When children stay home from school and other activities, they get behind in schoolwork and peer relationships, which increases stress, which in turn increases their suffering."

Walker added that children should be encouraged to play instead of spending more time alone and focusing on their health issues. The lack of social interaction could add up in the long run.

Miranda van Tilburg, an associate professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who was not involved in the study, explained to the New York Times that it isn't always known what the root of these tummy troubles are, but parents should be open to all possibilities. Being referred to a mental health professional by a pediatrician doesn't necessarily mean psychological issues are to blame.

"The take-away message should be you should not be afraid, if your doctor talks to you about anxiety in your child, to seek help from a mental health professional, because it could help your child feel better," Dr. van Tilburg said.

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