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Functional Abdominal Pain

What Is Functional Abdominal Pain?

Functional abdominal pain is belly pain that:

  • has been checked by a doctor and does not have a clear cause
  • happens 4 times a month or more
  • has lasted for at least 2 months
  • usually doesn’t last longer than 1 hour
  • isn’t related to anything in particular (such as eating, activity, or bowel movements)
  • happens in a child who is growing normally and has not lost weight
  • can be triggered by stress or anxiety

Most children with functional abdominal pain (also called centrally mediated abdominal pain syndrome) get better within a few weeks to months with no lasting problems.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Functional Abdominal Pain?

Besides the main symptom of belly pain, kids might have:

  • nausea (feeling sick to the stomach)
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • tiredness

What Causes Functional Abdominal Pain?

Doctors don’t know exactly what causes functional abdominal pain. It may be related to nerve signals from the brain or belly that make someone more sensitive to pain. The nerve signals may be set off by stretching of the stomach or rectum.

Functional abdominal pain usually happens in kids 4–16 years old. Sometimes, it happens after a gastrointestinal infection. It can be associated with a stressful event like a move or divorce

How Is Functional Abdominal Pain Diagnosed?

To diagnose functional abdominal pain, doctors:

  • Ask about symptoms and make sure the child doesn’t have problems like weight loss, poor growth, fever, rash, vomiting, or arthritis.
  • Do an exam.
  • Do blood tests and tests for blood in the stool (poop).
  • Ask about stressors such as recent changes at home or problems at school.

Kids with no serious symptoms and normal blood test and stool test results usually don’t need other tests.

How Is Functional Abdominal Pain Treated?

Doctors treat functional abdominal pain with some or all of the following:

  • diet changes such as avoiding foods that cause gas (like broccoli and cauliflower), fried foods, carbonated drinks (like soda), and spicy foods
  • medicines that help with cramping or lower the amount of acid in the stomach
  • pain medicine
  • counseling or relaxation techniques

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call the doctor if your child has functional abdominal pain and develops:

  • blood in the poop
  • diarrhea that lasts more than 2 days
  • vomiting that lasts more than 2 days
  • vomit with blood in it
  • belly pain that lasts longer than 1 hour or gets worse
  • a fever
  • loss of appetite
  • pain when peeing
  • constipation

How Can Parents Help?

Kids with functional abdominal pain may feel sad or anxious about dealing with their pain. They may be disappointed about missing activities because of the pain. To help your child cope:

  • Encourage your child to continue normal activities like going to school, playing sports, and spending time with family and friends.
  • Reassure your child the pain doesn’t have a serious cause and they should feel better soon.
  • Focus on your child’s activities and not on the pain. Seeing parents worry about them can upset kids. Talk to a counselor if you need help dealing with your own feelings.
  • Consider having your child talk to a counselor for support and to learn ways to relax.
Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date reviewed: January 2021