Tummy ache or abdominal pain is pain of any sort in or around the abdomen – the area of the body between the chest and the legs.
What causes it?
In the majority of cases, the cause is minor or never found. In nearly half of children admitted to hospital with abdominal pain, it settles without a diagnosis.
More than ten per cent of schoolchildren have recurrent tummy ache for several weeks but a cause is only ever found in one in ten.
However, there may be serious causes and it’s important to rule these out as early as possible, especially in younger children, before they become very ill.
Less serious causes include stress, constipation and inflammation of the lymph glands known as mesenteric adenitis – a harmless condition linked to viral infections, which soon settles.
Other infections may cause abdominal pain, including gastroenteritis, appendicitis and urinary tract infections.
Tummy ache may result from trauma to the abdomen, obstruction of the intestines, a hernia, sickle cell disease, migraine, lead poisoning and conditions outside the abdomen, such as pneumonia or hip problems.
Almost every child experiences tummy ache now and then for some reason.
What are the symptoms?
The pattern of pain – what it’s like, where it is, what makes it worse – may be a clue to the cause. For example, generalised pain that moves to the lower right side of the abdomen and gets more severe is typical of appendicitis, while pain that is relieved when the child opens their bowels is commonly reported in irritable bowel syndrome.
However, there are plenty of exceptions to these rules.
How’s it diagnosed and treated?
The cause of tummy ache can be difficult to establish. If you’re at all worried, call your doctor who may want to examine your child to exclude a serious cause before they then advise you about what to do.
The child should lie in a comfortable position with a warm (not hot) pack to hold against their tummy. If the pain seems mild they may be allowed small amounts of water, but not food.
Simple painkillers (not aspirin in the under-16s) may be given.
If tummy ache persists for more than a few hours or gets worse, or if there are other symptoms (especially fever, vomiting with green/yellow bile, pain on passing urine or a painful lump in the groin), call your doctor.
In recurrent tummy ache, try to find out if your child is under particular stress and discuss this with your doctor.