July 16, 2018


Rona Levy

It’s hard to focus on homework or enjoy a family outing if your stomach hurts. Unfortunately, 15 to 20 percent of children worldwide suffer from unexplained chronic abdominal pain disorders, and 60 percent of them continue to have chronic stomach pain into adulthood. 

Ongoing research led by School of Social Work Professor Rona L. Levy is helping change the lives of children with chronic stomach pain. Levy and her team discovered there is an intergenerational dynamic present in the families of children with stomach pain. One way to disrupt the pattern is to train parents in how they respond to their children’s complaints. The children, on the other hand, are taught some simple coping skills, such as deep breathing and muscle relaxation. 

Used together, these techniques known as cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, have significantly reduced chronic stomach pain symptoms. This low-cost protocol is also easy to implement. The family benefits from being able to return to their normal activities. In the future, they will likely save on health care costs and years of unnecessary and unexplained pain. However, not all children respond to CBT.

A new study now underway, which received a five-year, $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, focuses on whether having certain biologic factors, or biomarkers, can help predict treatment outcomes. This study will explore whether some physiological characteristics can be used to predict the success of CBT treatment of unexplained abdominal pain disorders. 

Levy is co-leading this study with Robert Shulman, a pediatric gastroenterologist with the Baylor College of Medicine. The results will help physicians select timely interventions that are most likely to work for an individual patient.

“This study is very exciting,” said Levy. “It allows our group to expand our work on psychosocial factors into physiological factors that may moderate the effectiveness of our interventions, and ultimately improve the health of chronically ill children.”