Treatment of Functional Abdominal Pain With Antidepressants: Benefits, Adverse Effects, and the Gastroenterologist's Role

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Pediatric functional abdominal pain is often treated with tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). The aim is investigating antidepressant use for treatment efficacy, correlation of response to psychiatric factors, and impact of adverse effects in regard to physicians’ prescribing patterns.


Retrospective review (2005–2013) children (5–21 years old) with functional abdominal pain treated with SSRI or TCA. Of the 531 cases with functional abdominal pain, 192 initiated SSRIs or TCAs while followed by gastroenterology. Charts reviewed for symptoms, adverse effects, and response: decreased pain or increased daily functioning.


Sixty-three of 84 (75%) SSRI patients improved, 56 of 92 (61%) TCA patients improved (P = 0.03). Logistic regression controlling for psychiatric factors: SSRI remained significant over TCA (P = 0.04). Thirty-two of 67 (48%) patients with constipation received TCAs and 26 of 45 (58%) patients with diarrhea received SSRIs (P = 0.64). Three SSRI patients reported gastrointestinal effects, all diarrheal-type symptoms, and 2 TCA patients reported gastrointestinal effects, both constipation, in all it led to discontinuation. Thirteen (29%) of diarrheal-type patients reported adverse effects causing discontinuation as compared to 7 (8%) in the constipation group (P = .01). Twenty-one (25%) SSRI patients reported adverse effects with 5 (6%) mood disturbances. Twenty (22%) TCA patients reported adverse effects, 13 (14%) with mood disturbances (P = .07). Overall, 12 (14%) SSRI patients discontinued medication due to adverse effects, whereas 16 (17%) TCA patients (P = 0.24) did.


Patients had significantly greater response to SSRIs than TCAs, remaining significant after controlling for psychiatric factors. Little significance is given to patient's associated gastrointestinal symptoms, frequently resulting in adverse effects and termination of medication.

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