Unhappy woman suffering from stomachache, sitting on bed

A woman with a stomachache (© Prostock-studio - stock.adobe.com)

LEUVEN, Belgium — According to a study of more than 50,000 people, 11 percent of the global population frequently experience abdominal pain when they eat. Pain while eating is most common among young people between 18 and 28 years-old. Those who experience it are more likely to suffer from bloating, a swollen tummy, feeling too full after eating, or suffering from constipation or diarrhea.

Based on the Rome Foundation Global Epidemiology study, the data revealed that 36 percent of people who suffered from stomach aches became anxious and distressed, compared to 18 percent of those who had never experienced meal-related pain. Those who suffered from frequent attacks of pain also reported higher rates of depression.

The findings come from an online study of 54,127 people across 26 countries. The participants reported on whether they had ever suffered from abdominal pain while eating. The team separated those who answered yes into three groups: those who experienced meal-related pain more than half of the time, those who experienced meal-related pain occasionally, and those who rarely or never experienced pain while or after eating.

“The take-home message from this study is that people who experience meal-related abdominal pain more frequently experience other gastrointestinal symptoms and more regularly fulfill criteria for disorders of the gut-brain interactions — DGBIs, formerly known as functional gut disorders — including common conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome [IBS], bloating, and abdominal distension. They also have a higher burden of psychological and somatic symptoms, such as back pain or shortness of breath, which are associated with major distress and functioning problems. These symptoms cause distress and disruption in daily life,” says study author Esther Colomie, a Ph.D. researcher at KU Leuven in a statement to SWNS.

More complications for people who have painful meals

The study found that symptoms such as constipation and diarrhea cropped up in 30 percent of those reporting frequent meal-related pain. This was 10 percent higher than those who experienced occasional discomfort after eating. Those who experienced frequent pain when eating reported feeling bloating and IBS symptoms as often as once a week, compared to once a month in the group who experienced no symptoms.

“Considering meal-related symptoms in future diagnostic criteria for DGBIs should be encouraged. In clinical practice, assessing meal association in all patients with DGBIs could be of major importance for improving and individualizing treatment. Here, patients could benefit from a multidisciplinary care approach, including dietary and lifestyle advice, psychological support, and pharmacological therapy,” Dr. Colomier adds.

Are eating pains a problem of the mind?

“Many patients with disorders of gut-brain interactions such as irritable bowel syndrome and functional dyspepsia ascribe their symptoms to food and eating. A major complaint is the development of pain following meals. However, there is no substantive data on this phenomenon, despite its potential significance for patient care and the study of the pathophysiology of these disorders,” says Professor Ami Sperber, who led the 2021 Global Epidemiology Study of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders study.

“This research is the first to use the large database of the Rome Foundation Global Epidemiology Study to gain insight into meal-related abdominal pain and its significance. The authors’ analyses of this database enabled an assessment of meal-related pain in over 20 DGBI in terms of diagnosis and potential associations with variables related to socio-demographic factors, psychosocial variables, and other variables. This has allowed Esther Colomie and her team to present a comprehensive picture of meal-related abdominal pain, its prevalence, societal burden, and its effect on the quality of life of patients with these very prevalent disorders,” Prof. Sperber concludes.

The team presented their findings at the United European Gastroenterology (UEG) virtual conference.

South West News Service writer Georgia Lambert contributed to this report.

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