Autonomic nervous system function in young children with functional abdominal pain or irritable bowel syndrome

J Pain. 2012 May;13(5):477-84. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2012.02.007. Epub 2012 Apr 20.


Adults with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have been reported to have alterations in autonomic nervous system function as measured by vagal activity via heart rate variability. Whether the same is true for children is unknown. We compared young children 7 to 10 years of age with functional abdominal pain (FAP) or IBS to healthy children (HC) and explored the relationship of vagal activity and sympathovagal balance to psychological distress and stool type. Children completed questionnaires, kept a 2-week pain/stool diary, and wore a 24-hour Holter monitor to assess vagal activity. Group comparisons on vagal activity were controlled for age and body mass index. Indicators of vagal activity and sympathovagal balance did not differ between FAP/IBS children (70 girls, 30 boys) and HC (44 girls, 18 boys). Psychological distress measures were generally higher in FAP/IBS than HC, primarily in girls. Exploratory analyses suggest a potential negative correlation between vagal activity and psychological distress in FAP/IBS girls but not boys. In contrast to reports in women, no differences were found in vagal activity between FAP/IBS and HC. Preliminary findings suggest that in girls with FAP/IBS there is an inverse relationship between vagal activity and psychological distress.

Perspective: The results from this study suggest a possible relationship between emotional state and vagal activity in prepubertal girls (but not boys) with FAP/IBS. Age and/or duration of symptoms may explain our contrasting findings versus adults with IBS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Abdominal Pain / complications*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / diagnosis
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / etiology*
  • Child
  • Electrocardiography
  • Female
  • Fourier Analysis
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome / complications*
  • Male
  • Pain Measurement
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Vagus Nerve / physiopathology