In a self-controlled case series using records from the Military Health System Data Repository, pediatric visits for disorders linked to gut-brain interactions were found to have increased 9% (incidence rate ratio, 1.09; 95% CI, 1.07-1.10) following a parent’s illness or injury, reported lead author, of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md., said in an interview. The Military Health System Data Repository receives records from the Department of Defense’s global network of more than 260 medical facilities as well as outside health care organizations where military families are seen.
A secondary analysis done for this study found children of brain injured parents had 4% more postinjury visits for abdominal pain and 23% increased odds of antispasmodic prescription, compared with children whose parents had other physical injuries, Dr. Short said. He presented his research in an abstract released as part of the annual Digestive Disease Week, which was canceled because of COVID-19. The study focused on children aged 3-16 years with a parent who served in the military and was ill or injured between 2004 and 2014. Excluded from this research were records for children with diagnosed systemic or organic gastrointestinal disease, such as celiac disease.
The study used ICD-9 codes to identify outpatient visits for irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain, constipation, and fecal incontinence in the 2 years before and after parental injury or diagnosis of illness. Outpatient pharmacy records showed which of the children studied took laxatives and antispasmodics.
Parental injury or illness was defined by the placement of the children’s mothers and fathers on the injured, ill, or wounded file in the data repository. The data file generally covers people with conditions that severely limit their ability to do their usual jobs. These include traumatic brain injury, PTSD, amputation, shrapnel injury, and illnesses such as cancer.
There was a 7% increase in visits for constipation but fecal incontinence did not significantly change following parental illness or injury, Dr. Short said. But the odds of being prescribed an antispasmodic increased 23% following parents’ injuries and serious illnesses, while the odds for laxative prescription decreased by 5%.
The study highlights the potential physical impact of stress on children when families experience a crisis, Dr. Short said in an interview. Children may feel anxious about their parent’s health, while at the same time experiencing unavoidable disruption in family life because of an injury or illness.
“It impacts the day-to-day regimens and routines and decreases the family support,” Dr. Short said. “As humans we are limited in what we have to offer. When we are trying to take care of things on our own, it limits what we can give to people around us.”
The findings of this study should serve to remind physicians to alert parents that their children could experience worsening of GI conditions because of the stress of an ill or injured parent. They then can focus on securing help ahead of the time for the child, such as therapy, he said.
The next step in advancing on the research he prepared for DDW could be testing through prospective studies how well preventive measures such as family counseling work, Dr. Short said.
Dr. Short’s research adds to the growing body of evidence about the brain-gut connection, said, a spokesperson for the American Gastroenterological Association. An associate professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center, New York, Dr. Margolis has published research on the brain-gut axis. Her lab focuses on the effects of neurotransmitters and inflammation on enteric nervous system development and function.
Physicians should take a broad view when treating children for functional GI illnesses. Behavioral therapy and antidepressants, for example, have been shown to help children with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and other functional gastrointestinal diseases, said Dr. Margolis.
“In a number of these cases, we not only have to treat the gut. We have to treat the brain as well,” Dr. Margolis said.
“When mental health issues are involved that impact the parents of these kids, You have to look at a family as an entire unit,” she added. “You not only treat the child for those symptoms, but you really have to look at how their parents can also be cared for so that their impact on their children will be positive as well.”
Research in the vein explored by Dr. Short will be important to remember as society works through the legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Margolis said. “We have huge numbers of families undergoing tremendous stress due to loss of jobs, health care, medical issues, and parental injury potentially from coronavirus.”
No outside funding was reported, and the study was covered through Uniformed Services University budget.
SOURCE: Short P et al. DDW 2020, .