Chronic abdominal pain affects a lot of people. For people suffering from it, their daily life gets affected. Our brain shares a close relationship with our gut. We have often used or heard phrases such as, ‘gut feeling’, ‘knot in the stomach’ ‘butterflies in the stomach. This indicates that what happens in our stomach can be directly related to what goes in our heads. This article explores the mental causes of chronic abdominal pain and how to live with chronic abdominal pain.
In chronic abdominal pain, people suffer from recurring abdominal pain. The reason can be physiological such as food poisoning or irritable bowel syndrome. This can lead to symptoms such as constipation, diarrhea, vomiting. However, when the reason is mental, people experience recurring stomach aches which are severe in nature with no apparent cause. For instance, we often experience a slight stomach ache before an interview. Some people experience this on a daily basis and more intensely.
Symptoms of Chronic Abdominal Pain
Every individual suffering from the condition may face different symptoms. Additionally, these symptoms may also change from episode to episode. Below is the list of some common symptoms.
- Sharp or dull pain in the abdominal area
- Pain around the belly button or anywhere near it
- Stomach aches which may cause vomiting, headaches, sweaty palms, pain in the limbs or shivering
- Pain in the stomach not apparently related to eating or type of food
- Disturbed eating patterns for instance, loss of appetite, not eating enough or skipping meals
Psychological Causes of Chronic Abdominal Pain
The Vagus nerve which starts at the brain and runs till the abdomen is a connection between our head and our gut. Nerve impulses flow from the abdomen to the spinal cord, then to the brain’s different sections. Our brain has two areas specific to pain perception. One of the brain areas is related to pain location and intensity of pain. The other is deals with memories or emotions. This interrelation is the reason why our emotions and life events can influence pain perception in the abdomen for some of us. Repeated abdomen injuries can make nerve receptors in the stomach extremely sensitive.
In chronic abdomen pain, even routine abdominal activity might be very painful. This is due to hypersensitivity of the gastrointestinal tract. In this condition, the brain’s ability to soften pain signals from the gastrointestinal tract is decreased. This means that even minor intestinal discomfort can be exaggerated and cause significant pain. That is to say, these individuals have a dysfunctional ‘brain-gut’ axis where the brain cannot regulate even normal nerve activity which leads to increased pain.
Effects of Chronic Abdominal Pain
Chronic abdominal pain can cause extreme discomfort to people who suffer from it. As people suffering from this condition receive continuous signals from their gut, their brain is also sending a secondary responses that magnify the negativity. This interaction between the brain and the gut leads to anticipatory anxiety. This makes it difficult for people to think about anything else except their pain. Given below are some of the effects of chronic abdominal pain:
- Under-Eating– People may fear that the type of food they are eating is leading to pain. Therefore, they may begin to avoid food items. This can lead to malnutrition, vitamin deficiency, and other physical symptoms such as weakness, dehydration, and fatigue.
- Hyper-vigilance– As people have experienced extreme pain in the past, they may constantly worry about the future. They may constantly feel anxious about it.
- Absenteeism– Children may refuse school if school stress is a reason for their abdominal pain. Adults may fear that the pain may start at their work hence they take more sick leaves. They may start avoiding social events which involve food or eating.