What Is Functional Abdominal Pain Syndrome?

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Your brain and gut share an intimate connection that scientists have only begun to understand. Many researchers believe that this relationship could help explain many conditions that have no apparent physical cause. 

Functional abdominal pain syndrome may offer valuable insights into the way the nervous and digestive systems interact. In the meantime, what is functional abdominal pain syndrome, and how can you find relief if you have it? 

Functional Abdominal Pain Syndrome — a Valid Physical Condition 

If you have never heard of functional abdominal pain syndrome, that’s because this disorder often gets a bad rap. All some people hear is the “brain-body connection,” and they think that the pain is all in your head. It isn’t. 

The disorder stems from altered sensitivity to nerve impulses in the brain and the gut. It bears little to no relationship with events like eating, elimination or menstruation, although many children with the condition complain about feeling full, even nauseous, after only a few bites. 

However, although symptoms sometimes arise after a traumatic event, such as a death or divorce in the family, they can also occur independently. That, plus the fact that this disorder often occurs in children, lends credence to a physiological basis. 

Please don’t accuse kids of the pain being “all in their head” — doing so destroys their sense of agency over their body and effectively gaslights them into believing their sensations aren’t real. Children, especially younger ones, have no incentive to lie about feeling sick, so please don’t project phony motivations onto them like, “You’re just trying to get attention,” when they’re genuinely asking for help. 

Remember, too, that medical science is not exact. People continue to learn more every day, and it is possible that researchers haven’t defined the precise etiology yet. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that folks still believed mental disorders like schizophrenia arose from evil spirits inhabiting the body. 

Symptoms and Diagnosis  

The symptoms of functional abdominal pain syndrome often mimic those of other disorders. What differentiates it from irritable bowel syndrome is that pain with defecation often does not occur, although researchers admit that this distinction is not scientifically defined.

Patients often experience the following:

  • Expressing pain in various intensities: Some people with this disorder have constant pain, while in others, it waxes and wanes. This symptom is often the first one expressed by children. 
  • Urgent reporting of symptoms: Patients may rate their pain as a 10, even though clinical tests show no identifiable cause for the distress. 
  • Minimizing psychosocial factors: Older patients may deny that there could be an underlying psychological cause for their distress. They may request procedures like exploratory surgery to confirm an organic cause of their disease. 

Additionally, people who have the disorder may report the following interrelated problems:

  • Heightened sensitivity to light, sound and food: This symptom sounds similar to abdominal migraines, which children also experience but tend to wax and wane. 
  • Anxiety and depression: These can spiral off the physical pain and vice-versa. People can become so anxious about a bad attack that they trigger one. 
  • Headaches: These episodes may occur with or without abdominal pain. 
  • Joint pain: These attacks may also occur independently of or concurrently with pain. 

To diagnose functional abdominal pain syndrome, your physician will run tests such as blood draws, urinalysis, stool samples and abdominal ultrasounds. They will not typically order more invasive procedures such as endoscopy unless your profile doesn’t match those usually seen in patients with this disorder. 

If you are diagnosed with functional abdominal pain syndrome, your doctor will probably prescribe a combination of mind-body care. They may recommend therapy to treat any underlying trauma and antispasmodic drugs to calm the GI tract and ease hypersensitivity. 

Healing the Whole Body

Ultimately, functional abdominal pain syndrome offers the promise to learn more about the brain-body connection. If researchers can learn what mechanisms cause the nerves to become hypersensitive, the findings could lead to treatment advances for many painful conditions, including those caused by spasms. 

In the meantime, individual patients can explore the mind-body connection by making dietary and other lifestyle changes. They can use yoga and meditation techniques to ease stress and eliminate greasy and spicy foods in favor of healthier fruits and vegetables. Those prone to excess gas can ease the ache by avoiding carbonated beverages and sugar-free products containing sorbitol. 

Functional Abdominal Pain Syndrome May Hold Clues to the Brain-Gut Connection

Functional abdominal pain syndrome is a real physical disorder caused by overactive nerve signals transmitted from the gut to the brain. While distressing, treatment is possible, and the condition may offer researchers valuable clues about how this body lifeline works. 

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