Conference Coverage

Addressing anxiety helps youth with functional abdominal pain disorders



– A stepped-care approach to youth with functional abdominal pain disorders may be effective in targeting those with comorbid anxiety, according to ongoing research.

A study of 79 pediatric patients with a functional abdominal pain disorder (FAPD) and co-occurring anxiety found that those who received cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that included a component to address anxiety had less functional disability and anxiety than those who received treatment as usual. Pain scores also dropped, though the difference was not statistically significant.

The patients, aged 9-14 years and mostly white and female, were randomized to treatment allocation. Functional disability scores were significantly lower post-treatment for those who received the stepped therapy compared with the treatment as usual group (P less than .05, Cohen’s D = .49). This indicates a moderate effect size, said Natoshia Cunningham, PhD, speaking at the scientific meeting of the American Pain Society.

Mean scores on an anxiety rating scale also dropped below the threshold for clinical anxiety for those receiving the stepped therapy; on average, the treatment as usual group still scored above the clinical anxiety threshold after treatment (P for difference = .05).

The study, part of ongoing research, tests a hybrid online intervention, dubbed Aim to Decrease Anxiety and Pain Treatment, or ADAPT. The ADAPT program includes some common elements of CBT for anxiety that were not previously included in the pediatric pain CBT in use for the FAPD patients, she said.

The hybrid program began with two in-person sessions, each lasting one hour. These were followed by up to four web-based sessions. Patients viewed videos, read some material online, and complete activities with follow-up assessments. The web-based component was structured so that providers can see how patients fare on assessments – and even see which activities had been opened or completed. This, said Dr. Cunningham, allowed the treating provider to tailor what’s addressed in the associated weekly phone checks that accompany the online content.

Parents were also given practical, evidence-based advice to help manage their child’s FAPD. These include encouraging children to be independent in pain management, stopping “status checks,” encouraging normal school and social activities, and avoiding special privileges when pain interferes with activities.

Overall, up to 40% of pediatric functional abdominal pain patients may not respond to CBT, the most efficacious treatment known, said Dr. Cunningham, a pediatric psychologist at the University of Cincinnati. Her research indicates that comorbid anxiety may predict poor response, and that addressing anxiety improves pain and disability in this complex, common disorder.

With a brief psychosocial screening that identifies patients with anxiety, Dr. Cunningham and her colleagues can implement the targeted, partially web-based therapy strategy that tackles anxiety along with CBT for functional abdominal pain.

“Anxiety is common and related to poor outcomes,” noted Dr. Cunningham, She added that overall, half or more of individuals with chronic pain also have anxiety. Among children with FAPD, “Clinical anxiety predicts disability and poor treatment response.”

The first step, she said, was identifying the patients with FAPD who had anxiety, including those with subclinical anxiety.

At intake, children coming to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital’s gastroenterology clinic complete anxiety screening via the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Emotional Disorders (SCARED) (Depress Anxiety. 2000;12[2]:85-91). Disability and pain are assessed by the Functional Disability Inventory and the Numeric Rating Scale (J Pediatr Psychol. 1991 Feb;16[1]:39-58).

In earlier research, Dr. Cunningham and her collaborators found a significant association between anxiety and both higher pain levels and more disability. And, clinically significant anxiety was more likely among the FAPD patients with persistent disability after six months of treatment.

A surprising finding from the screenings, said Dr. Cunningham, is that youth endorsed more anxiety symptoms in self-assessment than their parents observed. “Children are often their own best informants of their internalizing symptoms,” she said. “Not only do their parents not notice it, it may not be obvious to their providers, either.”

Since many children with FAPD have anxiety, the next question was “How do we better enhance their treatments?” she continued. To answer that question, she took one step back: “How do these youth respond to our current best practice?”

Looking at Cincinnati Children’s patients with FAPD who did – or did not – have anxiety, Dr. Cunningham found that “those who have clinical levels of anxiety don’t respond as well to CBT.” Pain-directed therapy alone, she said, “is insufficient to treat these patients.”

Together with brief screening, stepped therapy delivered via ADAPT offers promise to boost the efficacy of FAPD treatment, perhaps even in a primary care setting, said Dr. Cunningham. She and her collaborators are continuing to study comorbid anxiety and pain in youth; current work is using functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine cognitive and affective changes in patients receiving the ADAPT intervention.

The study was funded by the American Pain Society Sharon S. Keller Chronic Pain Research Grant, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Cunningham reported no relevant conflicts of interest.

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SOURCE: Cunningham N. et al. APS 2019.

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