Every child, at some point, gets a stomachache. Thankfully, they are usually brief and not something to be concerned about. But what actually happens in exceptional cases when the pain, constipation, or diarrhea do not go away?
A pediatric gastroenterologist at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), Dr. Harry Cynamon, MD, recently discussed in a news release the elusive nature of irritable bowel syndrome in children, the importance of gut-brain connection, and which signs could point to more serious illness.
How can parents know when a child’s stomachache is really serious? In the majority of cases, they are not serious. But when the symptoms persist or do get worse, parents need to immediately take the child to the pediatrician so that the problem can be investigated.
Which symptoms represent serious danger? There are issues that are red flags and need to be taken into account right away, such as throwing up blood or passing blood, losing weight, or not growing normally in a healthy way.
If a children is not responding to a treatment or need more evaluation, parents should find a specialist. From infants to teenagers, Dr. Cynamon said that he commonly sees a variety of gastro-intestinal disorders and liver disease. He said that one of the most common problems he treats is stomach pain, which can be caused by different reasons, but usually is due to irritable bowel syndrome.
What is irritable bowel syndrome? It is a condition characterized by chronic pain in the abdominal region along with either constipation or diarrhea. It can be very debilitating. Dr. Cynamon explained that when they do tests, the GI tract is normal and they see no inflammation or damage.
The causes of the disease are not known, but they suspect it to be linked to complex interactions between gut and brain; stress and anxiety can play a huge role. Kids feel at times that the adults around them do not believe they are even sick, although it is not an imaginary condition.
How can the irritable bowel syndrome be treated? As Dr. Cynamon explains, it is not a single pill cure. Special diet, exercise, stress-reduction techniques such as yoga and acupuncture are needed. Even school-related issues can be causing stress and may have to be solved.
There are medications for this syndrome for adults to take, but they have not been found to work that well in children. Despite this, Dr. Cynamon told a story about a boy that suffered with severe stomach pain for months, missing weeks of school and, in this young boy’s case, medication was the only solution that worked.
Differences between irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disorder? Sometimes they cause similar symptoms, however they are quite different. With irritable bowel syndrome, the GI tract is normal. Inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD) is a serious autoimmune disorder when a person’s immune system starts attacking the intestine, which causes inflammation. There are medications to treat the disorder, but there is no cure for it.
Why is IBD on the rise in kids? This disorder is rising in adults too and there is no answer for these two scenarios. The fact that IBD diagnosis is improving still does not account for the rise in diagnoses — its incidence is truly on the rise. About 100,000 kids under 18 years old have IBD, though it is still less common than irritable bowel syndrome.
How are stress and anxiety linked to stomach problems? Brain and gut are connected. In the gut we find millions of neurons as if it has its own nervous system. Some researchers have even named it a “second brain”. A new field of studies is emerging, the neurogastroenterology, to study these gut and brain interactions.
What can parents do to help their kids to have a healthy GI tract? Parents should really focus on promoting a healthy diet, high in fibers, in their children. Fruits, vegetables, plenty of fluids and regular exercise are the best prescription.
Studies showed that breastfeeding helps babies develop healthy gut flora filled with beneficial bacteria. Additionally, the aggressive overuse of antibiotics in early ages puts children at high risk of developing IBD.
It is worth noting, however, that a parent can do everything they are supposed to in helping prevent conditions like IBS or IBD and a child still may develop them. Researchers note that gut is complex, and solutions for effectively treating GI issues are not always simple. Each child has to be evaluated and treated in an individualized manner.