Chronic abdominal pain

What causes the pain?

Chronic abdominal pain is often considered a functional condition, meaning there is no medical explanation for the pain. However, this pain is usually caused by communication problems between the brain and the nerves in the intestines. These “functional” disorders can include irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia, functional abdominal pain syndrome, and abdominal migraine.

Chronic abdominal pain often can be accompanied by an autonomic disorder (a disorder of the autonomic nervous system) or a motility disorder (a condition in which the nerves and muscles in the gastrointestinal tract don’t work together properly).

Abdominal migraines also can lead to chronic abdominal pain. The most recognizable symptom of an abdominal migraine is intense episodes of abdominal pain followed by long periods without symptoms. In this way, abdominal migraines are similar to migraine headaches. Abdominal migraines affect 1 to 4 percent of children in the U.S. While they are slightly more common in girls, they also affect boys, usually starting at age 7 and peaking at age 10 to 12.

Diagnosing the problem

There isn’t a simple test to confirm chronic functional abdominal pain disorders. However, often suspect the problem if there are:

  • Periods of severe pain around the belly button
  • Normal laboratory tests
  • No “alarm symptoms,” such as blood in the stool, unexplained weight loss, fever, growth problems, mouth sores or rash
  • Pain that is not related to any other stomach problems

Risk factors

Certain factors may raise the risk of chronic abdominal pain such as:

  • Caffeine consumption
  • High sugar intake
  • Excessive worry
  • Travel
  • Long periods of time without enough food
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Exposure to flickering lights
  • Stress
  • Bullying

If your child suffers from chronic abdominal pain that does not improve, see a specialist. Our specialists in the pediatric neurogastroenterology, motility and autonomic disorders program are nationally recognized experts in the diagnosis and treatment of chronic abdominal pain.