Stomachache? It could be constipation

Constipation is a top reason kids visit the ER


Believe it or not, one of the top reasons parents bring their children to a Norton Children’s emergency department is constipation. It’s also the No. 1 cause of stomachaches.

“The children that come to the emergency department often have sharp pain,” said John T. Stutts, M.D., pediatric gastroenterologist at Norton Children’s Hospital and University of Louisville Physicians. “It can be doubling over, crying, drop-to-your-knees type of pain.”

In fact, more than 3,500 children a year are treated in a Norton Children’s emergency department for what turns out to be constipation. That’s about 10 children each day!

“It’s not a glamorous diagnosis, so it’s almost taboo,” Dr. Stutts said. “It usually takes a lot of education and reassurance for parents to understand that constipation is the cause of the abdominal pain.”

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What exactly is constipation?

According to Dr. Stutts, there can be multiple definitions.

“Hard stools, having to strain and skipping days between a bowel movement can all be definitions,” he said. “Breastfed infants can skip a day or two but when they do have a movement, it should be soft and easy to pass.

“Children ages 2 and up should have a bowel movement every day.”

Does your child have a stomachache that’s been going on several days with what looks like diarrhea? It could still be constipation.

“Sometimes if the constipation is bad enough, it actually looks like your child is having diarrhea,” Dr. Stutts said. “What is happening is stool has actually built up in the colon and liquid is leaking out around it.”

If your child has skipped a few days and has a lot of pain, or has skipped a few days and then appears to have diarrhea, contact your pediatrician right away. Simple at-home treatments can clear the constipation.

If your child has a fever, severe abdominal pain on the right side and refuses to eat or drink, you may be dealing with something more severe, such as appendicitis. In this case, head to an emergency department.