Don't Focus on the Pain, Kids

Controlling chronic abdominal pain using the mind can help children in the long run

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) When tummies hurt, it can be the biggest deal for children. But kiddos can take control and put the power of the mind to work, especially over a long period of time.

Kids and parents who learned ways to deal with their stomach pain were better off over a longer period of time than those who just learned about nutrition and their bellies, a recently published study has found.

The findings "make the case" for doctors and parents to know how psychological factors help in treating kids' long-term stomach aches, researchers said.

"Distract yourself from stomach pain."

Rona Levy, PhD, professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington, led researchers to find whether social learning and cognitive behavior therapy, which follows the idea that thoughts and behaviors are influenced by learning, helps kids deal with their stomach pain over a long period of time more than other educational methods.

The study included 200 children between 7 and 17 years of age and their parents who were recruited over a four-year period from gastrointestinal clinics in Seattle and Morristown, New Jersey.

The children had functional pain, which means the cause is unknown even after appropriate testing, along their abdomen at least three different times over a three-month period. Kids who were lactose intolerant or had a long-term disease or recent major surgery were excluded.

The participants and their parents were randomly assigned to receive either cognitive therapy and social strategies or typical educational sessions and support.

In the first group, children and parents together learned mental strategies for dealing with stomach pains, including relaxation techniques and keeping up with normal activities. Parents also learned ways to reinforce healthy responses from their children when dealing with their discomfort.

The other group learned about nutrition and the gastrointestinal system. Both groups had three one-hour sessions about a week apart with a trained therapist and were instructed to complete various homework assignments.

Before starting treatment, researchers asked children to rate their level of pain and symptoms on a variety of visual, hand-drawn scales and they tracked how each child reacted to his or her stomach pain.

Researchers continued to record the symptoms and reactions a week after starting the program, as well as three, six and 12 months later, and they did not know who was receiving which treatment.

They found that the children in the first group were better able to minimize their stomach pains a year after the treatment sessions, as well as distract themselves from and ignore the pain compared to the other group.

Parents of kids in the cognitive behavior group did not give in to their children's less healthy reactions to their pain as often as those in the second group over the 12 months. After the therapy, fewer took their child's pain more seriously.

Researchers said that pediatricians should include these strategies into their treatment plan for children, especially since the intervention is inexpensive.

"The opportunity that some pediatric practices have to collocate a mental health specialist in an office or clinic may also help make this therapy more available," researchers wrote in their report.

Future research should look into whether the cognitive strategies could be strengthened, researchers said.

Funding information for the study, published online December 31 in JAMA’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, was not available. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 3, 2013
Last Updated:
January 10, 2013