When kids get sick or don’t feel well, they usually don’t know how to precisely describe the problem to their parents. So when a child says, “my stomach hurts,” parents may have to probe deeper to figure out what’s really going on. Although an upset stomach is typically a minor concern that will go away on its own, there are times when it might indicate a bigger problem. Most of the time, though, parents just want to find a way to make their kid feel better quickly.
Common Causes of a Stomachache
Unfortunately, “my stomach hurts” could mean many different things, so parents have to become medical detectives to clarify the symptoms the child is experiencing. For instance, a sharp abdominal pain is much different than nausea. There are many different medical conditions that might cause pain or discomfort in a child’s stomach, but below are some common causes:
Constipation: Constipation is usually defined as having infrequent bowel movements, but more practically it means having hard or dry stool that is difficult to pass. Abdominal pain is a common symptom of constipation, but it can also include bloating and tenesmus, the sensation of having an incomplete bowel movement. Many times constipation occurs because of low dietary fiber or a lack of physical activity, but it can also happen for social/emotional reasons; for instance, kids may be intimidated or uncomfortable with having a bowel movement at school, so they will “hold it in.” When this becomes a pattern, it can lead to constipation and abdominal pain.
Gas: Sometimes gas, either because of diet or indigestion, can also be a cause of stomach pain or discomfort. Spicy foods, citrus, and caffeine can all cause excess gas in the bowels. Additionally, carbonated beverages like soda, especially if consumed through a straw, can cause a buildup of gas that may cause pain.
Overeating: Part of growing up is learning about restraint and limiting food intake, but kids sometimes eat more food than they need or can handle. In some cases, the physical pressure of too much food in the stomach can cause pain, but it can also arise when large quantities of (usually unhealthy) food makes its way through the digestive tract.
Lactose Intolerance: At birth, everyone by default produces lactase, a hormone that processes the lactose in dairy products. For some people, though, their body produces less and less as they get older. This condition is known as lactose intolerance, and it causes a variety of gastrointestinal symptoms, including abdominal pain. Parents may begin to notice a pattern of stomach problems after their child has consumed a dairy product.
Infection: Bacterial and viral infections are often easily passable between kids either at school or while playing. Some types of bacteria and viruses can have an effect on the stomach. The “stomach flu,” for instance, is actually gastroenteritis, and it can include diarrhea, vomiting, and fatigue, but it usually begins with stomach pain.
Anxiety and Stress: Kids may not always be able to verbalize feelings of stress or anxiety, yet the impact of accumulated stress can sometimes manifest itself in physical symptoms. The presence of stress and anxiety can essentially shut down the digestive tract, causing stomach pain or even sometimes headaches, diarrhea, or nausea.
Appendicitis: The appendix is a small structure that is attached to the colon and is now thought to be a reservoir for gut microflora. When the appendix becomes inflamed, it can cause severe abdominal pain, particularly in the lower right part of the abdomen or behind the belly button. Though somewhat rare, appendicitis can and does happen in children. Compared to other types of stomach pain, however, the pain associated with an inflamed appendix should be much more intense.
Location of the Stomach Pain
When asking a child for details about their stomach pain, it is useful to consider both the type and severity of pain and the location on the body. There aren’t any ironclad rules about location and cause, but the following list provides some common associations:
- high abdomen: indigestion, heartburn, stomach ulcers, pancreatitis
- belly button: stress, anxiety, constipation, or other digestion problems
- low abdomen: urinary tract infection, pelvic problems
- right side: gallstones, kidney stones, or appendicitis (lower right abdomen)
- left side: kidney stones, constipation (lower left abdomen)
When to See a Doctor
As noted above, a bout of temporary stomach pain is very normal for kids of all ages and usually isn’t a cause for concern. There are, however, some circumstances that may indicate a medical problem that needs attention. For example, severe or recurring stomach pain or pain that lasts more than a day. Another sign to watch out for is the presentation of multiple symptoms in addition to abdominal pain; jaundice, diarrhea, blood in stool, fever, or unexplained weight loss are all potentially indicators of a more serious problem.
Treatment Options for Stomach Pain
For most kids, though, a little abdominal pain is nothing to worry about. But even if that’s true, it can still be uncomfortable and distressing for the child in question. Naturally parents will want to take any necessary measures to make their child feel better rather than simply waiting it out. The following are some basic treatment options and home remedies that can help your child feel better when their tummy hurts:
- rest: if the pain is mild, simply getting rest will help
- bowel movement: encouraging the child to have a bowel movement or pass gas can relieve pressure in the digestive tract
- push fluids: whether because of diarrhea, constipation, or some other reason, dehydration can sometimes accompany stomach pain
- pain medication: if other methods aren’t helping, ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help ease the pain
- heating pad: a heating pad placed on the area where the pain is located can cause beneficial muscle relaxation and promote bowel motility
- bland foods: especially if the pain is related to digestive problems, bland foods like crackers or soup can soothe an upset stomach
- bowel medication: in the case of pain related to constipation, stool softeners can increase motility; also, probiotics may be helpful in resolving diarrhea by improving the health of gut bacteria
TrustCare Kids Can Help
While they’re growing up, kids are constantly discovering new things about their bodies and learning that some feelings mean that something might be wrong. While stomachaches are usually temporary inconveniences for adults, kids may find them alarming and worrisome. They may need help in figuring out where the pain is coming from, how bad it is, and what the cause might be.
If your child has stomach pain that doesn’t have an obvious source, you may want to seek medical advice. At TrustCare Kids, our pediatric clinic is dedicated to providing excellent health care for kids. Available seven days a week, you can bring your child to our facility for urgent care. Alternatively, TrustCare Kids also offers pediatric primary care that is available by appointment.
This post has been medically reviewed by Dr. Catherine Phillippi, pediatrician at TrustCare Kids. She earned her medical degree from the University of Mississippi School of Medicine in 1999 and completed her pediatric training at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences/Arkansas Children’s Hospital.