Childhood abdominal pain may be linked to disordered eating in teenagers
13 May 2021
New research shows that people who suffer from recurrent abdominal pain in childhood may be more likely to have disordered eating as teenagers.
This is the first study to provide prospective evidence of an association between recurrent abdominal pain at aged 7-9 years and fasting to control weight at aged 16 years. The study, published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, suggests that recurrent abdominal pain, the most common gastro-intestinal complaint of childhood, may be an independent risk factor for later fasting to control weight.
Researchers at the University of Oxford, Duke University USA, and the University of Bristol, used the ‘Children of the 90s’ population cohort of 14,000 children in the UK, to explore this association.
Dr. Kate Stein, lead author on the study, Department of Psychiatry, University Oxford, said: ‘Record numbers of young people are being referred to NHS eating disorder services with more than twice as many referrals in 2020 as there were in 2017. The factors behind eating disorders are complex, but our findings suggest that for some patients, recurrent abdominal pain in childhood may precede and contribute to later problems.
‘While we cannot confirm that childhood recurrent abdominal pain increases the risk of developing an eating disorder, we suspect that some children become fearful of their pain and start to avoid foods which they associate with the pain. This could then set them on a trajectory which leads to unhelpful fasting behaviours in adolescence.’
The authors of the study outline three specific recommendations for clinicians:
- Enquire about a history of childhood recurrent abdominal pain in patients with eating disorders
- Assess disordered eating in patients with gastro-intestinal disorders, such as childhood recurrent abdominal pain
- Address patients’ anxiety associated with their gastro-intestinal sensations when treating eating disorders
Dr. Stein continues: ‘By enquiring about a history of childhood recurrent abdominal pain in all patients with eating disorders, we would be able to identify patients whose childhood pain may have contributed to their food avoidance and tailor their treatment plan accordingly. Similarly, by assessing disordered eating in patients with gastro-intestinal problems, we may be able to prevent unhelpful eating patterns as they grow up.’
The study findings show an association between a child suffering from abdominal pain 3 or more times a year and later fasting for weight control at aged 16 years. However, there was no association found between childhood abdominal pain suffered 5 or more times a year and later adolescent fasting for weight control at aged 16 years.
Dr Stein, explains: ‘It could be that for childhood recurrent abdominal pain, the frequency of pain may be less important to long term outcomes than the severity of the pain, the distress caused and/or the child’s functional impairment resulting from the pain. As a doctor, I have noticed that a number of our teenage patients with anorexia nervosa suffered from painful gastro-intestinal (GI) problems in childhood (such as abdominal pain or constipation). Thus, a child’s early GI experiences could provide a key into our understanding of the disordered eating seen in so many young people today.’
Notes to editors:
For further information, please contact: Genevieve Juillet, Media Relations Manager (Research and Innovation), University of Oxford, firstname.lastname@example.org
To see the full paper, Do children with recurrent abdominal pain grow up to become adolescents who control their weight by fasting? Results from a UK population-based cohort https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/eat.23513
Funding: The UK Medical Research Council and Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol provide core support for Children of the 90s, also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC).
Dr Kate Stein is an NIHR funded Academic Clinical Fellow. We are grateful to Oxford University Clinical Academic Graduate Scheme (OUCAGS) for their financial support in allowing us to access the ALSPAC dataset. Dr Naomi Warne (University of Bristol) is supported by funding from the Medical Research Council/Medical Research Foundation (MRC/MRF grant number MR/S020292/1). Dr Zucker (Duke University USA) received funding from the National Science Foundation/National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Grant R01MH122370.
About Children of the 90s
Based at the University of Bristol, Children of the 90s, also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), is a long-term health research project that enrolled more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992. It has been following the health and development of the parents, their children and now their grandchildren in detail ever since. It receives core funding from the Medical Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the University of Bristol.
About the University of Oxford
Oxford University has been placed number 1 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the fifth year running, and at the heart of this success is our ground-breaking research and innovation. Oxford is world-famous for research excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.
The University Department of Psychiatry’s mission is to conduct world-class research, teach psychiatry to medical students, develop future researchers in a graduate programme, teach doctors in training, promote excellence in clinical practice, and develop and provide innovative clinical services. It supports research in four key areas: neurobiology, psychological treatments, developmental psychiatry and social psychiatry. The Department is committed to the translation of scientific discovery into benefits for patients. www.psych.ox.ac.uk