December 24, 2007 / 6:33 PM / 12 years ago

Chronic tummy aches common in young teens

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - One in five children will develop chronic abdominal pain during adolescence, according to a new study in English schoolchildren.

The problem was more common in girls, with one-third reporting persistent stomach pain, compared to 13 percent of boys, Dr. A. El-Metwally of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and colleagues found, but the reasons for the gender difference remain unclear.

Most children with abdominal pain have no physical abnormalities, the researchers note; “children with such pain have been described as compulsive, highly strung, and perfectionist,” they add. Some studies have suggested that these stomachaches could predict psychiatric or gastrointestinal problems in adulthood.

To investigate the development of chronic stomach pain over time, the researchers followed 675, 11-to-14-year-olds for up to four years. All were free from stomach pain at the beginning of the study. Among the 392 children followed for the entire time period, 22 percent reported pain at the one-year follow-up that persisted to the four-year follow-up.

Both girls and boys who had headaches were more likely to develop chronic abdominal pain, the researcher found. Other factors predicting stomach pain in boys included having conduct problems, not enjoying school, feeling tired in the daytime, and being tall.

Menstruation didn’t appear to be a factor in the higher incidence of abdominal pain in girls, the researchers note, because girls who were menstruating and those who hadn’t yet begun having periods had the same likelihood of developing stomach aches.

Height itself could be a risk factor for stomach pain in boys, they add, or it could be a marker for another factor such as early puberty.

Psychosocial problems are known to be linked to non-illness-related stomach pain in adults, but it’s not clear why, the researchers note. “The potential gender-related differences found in the current study highlight the complexity that surrounds this relationship and needs further investigation,” they conclude.

SOURCE: Archives of Disease in Childhood, December 2007.

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