Functional Abdominal Pain in Children

What is functional abdominal pain?

Functional abdominal pain, also known as intractable abdominal pain, is persistent stomach pain that does not resolve with usual therapeutic treatment. The pain may be constant or may come and go.

Approximately 10 to 15 percent of school-age children have functional abdominal pain at some point. It can be accompanied by diarrhea, constipation or both. It may be related to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

A child with functional abdominal pain may also suffer from multiple, interrelated problems, such as:

  • heightened sensitivity to light, sound or diet
  • fatigue or sleep disorders
  • anxiety and depression
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • joint pain

Functional abdominal pain is not life threatening, but it can interfere with school and other activities.

How we care for functional abdominal pain

Boston Children’s Hospital is ranked #1 in gastroenterology, #1 in urology and #1 in neurology, among other programs by U.S. News & World Report. Our Functional Abdominal Pain program is part of our Motility and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Center, one of the only medicine-based gastrointestinal (GI) motility centers in the United States.

Our integrated team of GI doctors, pain specialists, psychologists, nutritionists and social workers bring a broad perspective to understanding GI issues and can address overlapping physical and psychological conditions that often accompany functional abdominal pain.

What are the symptoms of functional abdominal pain?

Children with functional abdominal pain may experience diarrhea, constipation or both. Often the pain occurs around a child's belly button, though it can also migrate to other areas of the stomach. The pain may come on suddenly or it may get more severe over time.

Other symptoms include:

  • indigestion
  • abdominal pain with bowel movements
  • feeling full after eating a small amount of food
  • nausea
  • vomiting

What causes functional abdominal pain?

Researchers do not know for sure what causes functional abdominal pain. It can stem from a variety of conditions, such as a food allergy, infection or condition like Crohn's disease that requires long-term care and monitoring. In most cases, functional abdominal pain is not caused by a serious medical condition.

Sometimes, anxiety, depression or trauma may make a child more susceptible to functional abdominal pain and other GI issues.