Irritable bowel syndrome: the commonest cause of recurrent abdominal pain in children

Eur J Pediatr. 2004 Oct;163(10):584-8. doi: 10.1007/s00431-004-1503-0.


Apley, working in Bristol, UK, defined recurrent abdominal pain (RAP) in 1958. After extensive investigations, he found that 8% of children presenting to his clinic with RAP had an organic pathology. The aims of this study were to identify (1) causes of RAP using modern methodology, (2) factors associated with organic RAP and (3) children with non-organic RAP who fulfill the diagnostic criteria for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Children, aged over 3 years, presenting with RAP were prospectively recruited to this study. They had a detailed questionnaire completed, a full examination with screening tests (blood for coeliac screen, Helicobacter pylori antibody titre, inflammatory markers, serum amylase, liver function tests, and full blood count, urine and stool analyses and abdominal ultrasonography). Endoscopy and oesophageal pH monitoring were performed if clinically indicated. IBS was diagnosed if the child had no organic pathology and fulfilled the Rome II criteria. Out of 103 children (median age of 10 years, mean 10.04, SD +/-3.44), 31 children (30%) had organic pathologies. Factors associated with organic pain were nocturnal symptoms (P<0.01) and abdominal tenderness (P<0.005) and with non-organic pain were periumbilical locality (P<0.002), pain alleviation on defaecation (P<0.04) and low fibre diet (P<0.005). Of children with non-organic pain, 37/52 (51%) fulfilled the criteria for IBS (36% of the total).

Conclusion: Of children presenting with recurrent abdominal pain in a hospital setting, 30% have a diagnosable organic aetiology compared to 8% in Apley's time. Irritable bowel syndrome, however, may be the commonest cause of recurrent abdominal pain and should be considered.

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / etiology*
  • Adolescent
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Endoscopes, Gastrointestinal
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / complications
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / diagnosis*
  • Male
  • Recurrence
  • Risk Factors