"My Stomach Hurts": Common Causes and Cures for Tummy Trouble

Functional Abdominal Pain

What it feels like: There's recurring pain around the belly button, which is often worse first thing in the morning and when your child goes to bed. The ache may last for hours at a time or come and go over the course of several weeks or longer, and even be severe enough to make him double over in pain.

What's going on: Some kids simply have oversensitive intestines, so that anything from a virus to normal gas can hurt -- and hurt for a while after it's passed. "It's similar to the way that skin that's been burned can remain sensitive for a long time," explains Carlo Di Lorenzo, MD, chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio. Stress is the other major cause of intermittent abdominal pain. Nerves in the intestines that have a direct connection to the brain cause everyone's tummy to react when they get scared or excited -- but some kids have a heightened brain-intestine connection, making their stomach more responsive to stress. Cathleen Barnhart took her daughter, Maggie, to the pediatrician after the third-grader repeatedly went to the school nurse crying about a stomachache. "I thought that it might be tied to anxiety, and the doctor confirmed it," says Barnhart, of White Plains, New York.

What to do: Be low-key. Kids tend to complain less about their stomachaches when their parents try to distract them from the pain rather than pouring on the sympathy, research has found. Dr. Di Lorenzo doesn't recommend ignoring the pain -- it's definitely real -- but don't reinforce it by letting your child stay home from school. The more school he misses, the more anxious he'll be about going back, and that can start the cycle of pain all over again. Instead, have him lie down for 10 minutes or get him involved in an activity. If you can't distract him and his pain is severe enough to make him cry for more than 20 minutes, call your pediatrician. Treatment can range from fiber supplements and antispasmodic medications to low-dose antidepressants (for kids 10 and up). Cognitive behavioral therapy, visualization, and, most recently, hypnotherapy have been shown to work too: Last year, a Dutch study found that hypnosis reduced pain in 85 percent of children compared with 25 percent of kids in a control group. Barnhart's daughter learned how to manage her stomachaches by riding in the front of the school bus (the bumpy ride made the pain worse), breathing slowly in and out, and having sips of water.

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