What to do about the back-to-school tummy ache

Sep 2, 2013 at 7:24 a.m. ET

Tummy pain is a common reason for children to visit a doctor's office, especially during the school year. However, more often than not, no physical source for the bellyache can be found. So what’s causing all these sore tummies?

Child having stomach examined at doctor's office

A condition known as recurrent abdominal pain (RAP) might be the answer. See how you can help determine if your child suffers from this common problem.

What is recurrent abdominal pain?

RAP is a condition in which abdominal pain occurs at least three times in three months and interferes with daily activities such as school. Children aged 5–16 are most at risk, and 10–30 per cent of school-aged children are affected. RAP accounts for 75–90 per cent of all childhood abdominal pain visits, and often no organic cause can be found. The pain can be severe, and the child experiencing it might use vivid imagery to describe what they are feeling. Remember, just because the tests are negative does not mean your child is faking it. Their pain might be a physical manifestation of a psychological struggle.

First step, rule out other causes

It's always better to be safe than sorry, especially when it comes to a child. Put away your Dr. Mom hat, and just be Mom. If this is a chronic problem, make an appointment with your family doctor or pediatrician to discuss the need for tests. However, you should see a doctor immediately if your child's pain is accompanied by fever, weight loss or blood in their stool.

Do a little digging

Now that your doctor has reassured you that nothing serious is wrong, you'll need to do a little sleuthing. When did their abdominal pain start? Was there a traumatic event (such as a divorce) that coincided with the time of onset? Is your child being bullied at school? How is their self-esteem? Find out what the pain's triggers are so you can work through them together with your child.

Talk to your child

Often no one can get to the bottom of a child's emotions like Mom can. Find out if they are sad, anxious or even depressed. Don't just assume they're not; ask how they're feeling. If they are avoiding school because of a bully, speak to the principal. If they are anxious because they don't understand the subject matter being taught, speak to the teacher to see how you can help. If they are sad or anxious but can't explain why, help unravel their emotions, and if you don't know how, get a professional involved.

Learn more about childhood depression >>

How you can help them

The key to treatment is dealing with the underlying problem head-on instead of avoiding it. Frequent school absences are not the solution and might only compound the issue. If you're concerned about anxiety or depression in your child, speak with a health care provider. Encourage a healthy, well-balanced diet with lots of fibre.

Remember, your child's tummy ache might be the same as your stress-induced migraine — the pain is real! See your health care provider for ongoing diagnosis and support.

Note: All medical information is directed at a Canadian audience. Speak with your physician before following through with any advice.

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