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Imagine that: no tummy aches

August 18, 2003|Dianne Partie Lange | Special to The Times

Children have active imaginations, which physicians have learned can be put to good use to relieve chronic stomach aches. University of Arizona researchers found that children who learned relaxation and guided imagery techniques had a 67% decrease in the number of days when they experienced abdominal pain.

Ten children who had pain caused by some type of bowel disorder that had no apparent explanation participated in the study. "These children had been suffering from nine months to several years [with recurrent abdominal pain]," says lead author Dr. Thomas M. Ball, associate professor of pediatrics. "Their pediatricians couldn't help them. Pediatric gastroenterologists had recommended therapies, none of which helped. These children were not responding to any standard therapy."

The children, age 5 to 18, learned the guided imagery technique in four weekly 50-minute sessions. They first learned deep abdominal breathing and how to relax different muscle groups. Then they were asked to imagine their last episode of abdominal pain, allowing a detailed image to form. Next they were told to imagine the most powerful pain reliever. For instance, a child might think of the pain as a fire and then picture an ocean wave putting the fire out. The first session was audiotaped, so the child could practice the technique at home.

"Even before the four sessions were complete, they showed dramatic improvement," Ball says. During the month of training, the number of days during which children had pain decreased by 36% on average. Two months after the training, days with pain had decreased 67%. Nine of the 10 children improved and none became worse.

Although this was a small pilot study, Ball and his colleagues have repeated the study with a control group of children who did only the deep-breathing segment. The fact that the children doing guided imagery did much better than those in the control group indicates that the benefit is not because of "just warm and fuzzy time with the therapist," says Ball. That study hasn't been published yet. The first study was published in the July/August issue of Clinical Pediatrics.

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