Understanding Functional Abdominal Pain in Adults

May 10, 2024

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Functional abdominal pain (FAP) is a common condition that affects many adults worldwide. It is characterized by persistent or recurrent abdominal pain that cannot be attributed to any specific structural or biochemical abnormalities[1]. FAP is a type of functional gastrointestinal disorder (FGID), which means that the digestive system appears normal but does not function properly.

FAP can have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life, causing physical discomfort, emotional distress, and social limitations. Understanding the nature of FAP and learning how to manage its symptoms can help patients cope with this condition more effectively.

Symptoms of Functional Abdominal Pain

The primary symptom of FAP is chronic abdominal pain that persists for at least three months. The pain may vary in intensity and location, often occurring in the middle or lower abdomen. Patients with FAP may experience:

  • Dull, aching, or sharp pain
  • Cramping or burning sensations
  • Pain that is not relieved by bowel movements or passing gas

In addition to abdominal pain, patients with FAP may also report other gastrointestinal symptoms, such as bloating, nausea, and changes in bowel habits[2].

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of FAP is not well understood, but several factors may contribute to the development of this condition:

  1. Altered gut motility and sensitivity
  2. Dysfunction of the brain-gut axis
  3. Psychosocial factors, such as stress, anxiety, or depression
  4. Genetic predisposition
  5. Previous gastrointestinal infections or surgeries

Certain lifestyle factors, such as poor diet, lack of physical activity, and smoking, may also increase the risk of developing FAP.

Diagnosis of Functional Abdominal Pain

Diagnosing FAP can be challenging, as there are no specific tests or imaging studies that can definitively confirm the condition. The diagnosis is typically based on the presence of characteristic symptoms and the exclusion of other potential causes of abdominal pain[3].

Your healthcare provider may recommend the following tests to rule out other conditions:

  • Blood tests
  • Stool tests
  • Endoscopy (e.g., colonoscopy or upper endoscopy)
  • Imaging studies (e.g., CT scan or MRI)

Treatment Options for Functional Abdominal Pain

The treatment of FAP usually involves a multidisciplinary approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the condition. The main goals of treatment are to reduce pain, improve quality of life, and restore normal gut function.

Lifestyle Modifications

Making certain lifestyle changes can help manage the symptoms of FAP:

  • Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet
  • Avoiding trigger foods (e.g., spicy or fatty foods)
  • Engaging in regular physical activity
  • Managing stress through relaxation techniques or therapy
  • Quitting smoking and limiting alcohol consumption

Pharmacological Treatments

Several medications may be prescribed to help alleviate the symptoms of FAP:

  • Antispasmodics: These drugs help relax the muscles in the digestive tract, reducing pain and cramping.
  • Antidepressants: Low-dose tricyclic antidepressants or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) can help modulate pain perception and improve gut motility.
  • Pain relievers: Over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, may be recommended for mild to moderate pain.

Psychological Therapies

Psychological interventions can be highly effective in managing FAP, as they help patients cope with the emotional and cognitive aspects of the condition. Some common therapies include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps patients identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that may exacerbate their symptoms.
  • Relaxation techniques: Deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can help reduce stress and alleviate pain.
  • Hypnotherapy: Gut-directed hypnotherapy has been shown to be effective in reducing abdominal pain and improving quality of life in patients with FAP[4].

Coping with Functional Abdominal Pain

Living with FAP can be challenging, but there are several strategies that can help patients cope with the condition:

  1. Educate yourself: Learn as much as you can about FAP and its management to better understand your condition and make informed decisions about your care.
  2. Communicate with your healthcare team: Maintain open communication with your healthcare providers and discuss any concerns or questions you may have about your treatment plan.
  3. Join a support group: Connecting with others who have FAP can provide valuable emotional support and practical advice for managing the condition.
  4. Practice self-care: Prioritize activities that promote physical and emotional well-being, such as engaging in hobbies, spending time with loved ones, and practicing stress-reduction techniques.

The Importance of a Holistic Approach

Effectively managing FAP requires a holistic approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the condition. This may involve collaboration among various healthcare professionals, including:

  • Primary care physicians
  • Gastroenterologists
  • Pain specialists
  • Mental health professionals
  • Registered dietitians

By working together, this multidisciplinary team can develop a comprehensive treatment plan tailored to each patient’s unique needs and goals.

FAP may coexist with or share similarities to other chronic pain conditions, such as:

Patients with FAP may benefit from exploring resources and treatment options related to these conditions, as they may share common management strategies and coping mechanisms.

The Role of Diet in Managing FAP

Diet plays a crucial role in managing the symptoms of FAP. While there is no one-size-fits-all diet for patients with FAP, certain dietary modifications may help alleviate symptoms:

Dietary StrategyExplanation
Eat smaller, more frequent mealsConsuming smaller meals throughout the day can help reduce bloating and abdominal discomfort.
Limit high-fat foodsFatty foods can slow down digestion and exacerbate abdominal pain.
Identify and avoid trigger foodsSome patients may have specific food intolerances that contribute to their symptoms. Keeping a food diary can help identify potential triggers.
Consider a low-FODMAP dietA diet low in fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) may help reduce abdominal pain and bloating in some patients[5].

Working with a registered dietitian can help patients develop a personalized meal plan that addresses their specific needs and preferences.

The Importance of Stress Management

Stress is a common trigger for FAP symptoms, and effective stress management is an essential component of treatment. Some strategies for managing stress include:

  • Practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation
  • Engaging in regular physical activity, such as walking, swimming, or yoga
  • Prioritizing sleep and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule
  • Seeking support from family, friends, or mental health professionals

By incorporating stress-reduction techniques into their daily routine, patients with FAP can better manage their symptoms and improve their overall well-being.


Functional abdominal pain is a complex condition that requires a multifaceted approach to management. By working closely with healthcare providers, making lifestyle modifications, and employing coping strategies, patients with FAP can effectively manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Remember, everyone’s experience with FAP is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Be patient with yourself and don’t hesitate to seek support when needed. With the right tools and resources, it is possible to live well with functional abdominal pain.

Key Takeaways

  1. FAP is a common functional gastrointestinal disorder characterized by chronic abdominal pain without an identifiable structural or biochemical cause.
  2. A multidisciplinary approach addressing both physical and psychological aspects of FAP is essential for effective management.
  3. Lifestyle modifications, such as maintaining a healthy diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and managing stress, can help alleviate FAP symptoms.
  4. Pharmacological treatments, psychological therapies, and dietary interventions may be recommended based on individual patient needs.
  5. Patients with FAP can benefit from educating themselves about the condition, communicating with their healthcare team, joining support groups, and practicing self-care.


  1. Drossman, D. A. (2016). Functional gastrointestinal disorders: history, pathophysiology, clinical features, and Rome IV. Gastroenterology, 150(6), 1262-1279. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2016.02.032
  2. Schmulson, M. J., & Drossman, D. A. (2017). What is new in Rome IV. Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility, 23(2), 151-163. https://doi.org/10.5056/jnm16214
  3. Drossman, D. A., & Hasler, W. L. (2016). Rome IV—functional GI disorders: disorders of gut-brain interaction. Gastroenterology, 150(6), 1257-1261. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2016.03.035
  4. Palsson, O. S., & Whitehead, W. E. (2013). Psychological treatments in functional gastrointestinal disorders: a primer for the gastroenterologist. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, 11(3), 208-216. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cgh.2012.10.031
  5. Eswaran, S., Farida, J. P., Green, J., Miller, J. D., Chey, W. D., & Tack, J. (2021). American Gastroenterological Association Institute guideline on the role of diet in irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroenterology, 161(5), 1497-1507. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2021.08.018
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