Abdominal pain in children is common and can have many causes. Usually, abdominal pain goes away without treatment. In some cases, the pain has an underlying cause and will need specialized treatment.
Abdominal pain can occur anywhere between the chest and the groin. A child may feel localized pain in one area, a more generalized in a larger area, or cramp-like pain.
Abdominal pain is common in babies, infants, and children under the age of 12, and it can have many causes.
This article will outline some causes of abdominal pain in children, other symptoms a child might experience, and when a child should see a doctor.
There are many causes of abdominal pain in children. The most common causes are short term and resolve without medical intervention.
Causes of abdominal pain in children include:
More common in infants than older children, trapped wind can cause pain. Caregivers can help a baby get rid of wind through burping or passing gas.
Children often bump into things, fall, or become injured during sports. If they hurt their abdomen, they may experience pain in that region.
This happens when a child ingests food that contains harmful germs, often due to poor preparation and storage. Symptoms are similar to gastroenteritis.
Learn about the differences between a stomach virus and food poisoning here.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS):
IBS is a condition that affects the large intestine, or colon, and leads to symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, and stomach bloating.
Colic is common in babies and appears to be very painful for babies. Another symptom of colic is wind.
Urinary tract infections (UTI)
These are more common in older children and cause symptoms such as pain when urinating, frequent urinating, and fever.
When part of the bowel slides into another, like a telescope, it can cause a blockage that prevents the normal flow of solids or liquids. Children with intussusception may have intermittent severe pain, bleeding from the bottom, and lethargy. Intussusception is a serious condition and requires medical attention.
When an organ or body tissue bulges through a weak spot in the abdominal wall, it can get trapped. This is a medical emergency. If blood flow is cut off, causing tissues to die, it is a strangulated hernia.
When a testicle rotates and twists the spermatic cord, a boy might feel pain in the abdominal area and the affected testicle.
Ingestion of a foreign body
In most cases, when a child swallows an object, it will make its way through the gastrointestinal tract and pass out of the body unassisted. However, swallowing small items, such as button batteries or magnets, can cause life-threatening complications, and a child should go to the hospital immediately.
Some children assigned female at birth may experience abdominal pain when they have a period. This is known as dysmenorrhea.
Depending on the cause, abdominal pain can be:
- sharp or dull
- severe or mild
- lasting a few minutes or a few hours
- worse when lying down
Other symptoms can accompany stomach pain, including:
- passing gas
- loss of appetite
- nausea or vomiting
- curling up in a ball
- wanting to stay still
- being fussy or grumpy
- swelling in the abdomen
Doctors will usually use a combination of questioning and tests to determine the cause of abdominal pain in children.
A doctor might examine a child by pressing on their abdomen in different places and looking for tenderness and swelling. They may also ask if the pain gets more intense when they touch certain areas.
A doctor may also recommend tests to determine the cause, such as:
A doctor may describe it as RAP when a child experiences at least three episodes of pain over 3 months. The pain must be severe enough to impact the child’s daily activities. RAP is not a diagnosis but a descriptive term that can help doctors refer to the situation while determining the correct diagnosis.
Frequent abdominal pain in children could be due to an underlying condition.
Sometimes the pain can be psychosomatic, meaning that it may have links to a child’s mental health, worries, or emotions. People should speak with their child’s doctor if their child has repeated stomach aches.
Learn more about mental health here.
In most cases of abdominal pain, a child will get better without needing treatment.
If a person is caring for a child with abdominal pain, they should:
- ensure the child rests
- give the child pain relief but make sure that it is appropriate for the age and weight of the child
- encourage the child to drink plenty of clear fluids, such as water, diluted juice, or oral rehydration solution
- give the child bland foods to eat, such as bananas, toast, or crackers
- sit them on the toilet, as passing a stool may help with the pain
If a doctor diagnoses an underlying condition, they will recommend specific treatments for that condition.
People should contact a doctor regarding their child’s abdominal pain if the child:
- has severe or worsening pain
- has a fever or chills
- becomes pale and sweaty
- has been vomiting longer than 24 hours
- refuses to eat or drink
- has blood in their stool
- is not passing urine or producing fewer than four wet nappies per day
- develops a skin rash
A doctor may ask the child or their caregiver questions about their abdominal pain.
Questions may include:
- When did the pain begin?
- What was the child doing at the onset of the pain?
- When was their last bowel movement?
- Have there been changes to their urine?
- Does the pain come and go, or is it constant?
Answering these questions and conducting tests may help the doctor diagnose the cause of the abdominal pain.
Most children will experience abdominal pain at some point, and most of the time, it is nothing to worry about. Often, children do not require specific treatment for abdominal pain, and the pain will resolve itself with home remedies and rest.
There are many different causes of stomach pain in children. The most common causes are constipation, trapped wind, and gastroenteritis.
Most cases of abdominal pain will resolve themselves without treatment. If the pain is severe or sudden, a caregiver should contact a doctor to determine the cause.
A doctor will usually ask questions and do a physical exam to reach a diagnosis.