"What is especially exciting about our study is that children can clearly reduce their abdominal pain a lot on their own with guidance from audio recordings, and they get much better results that way than from medical care alone," said lead author Dr Miranda van Tilburg, assistant professor in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology in the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine and a member of the UNC Centre for Functional GI and Motility Disorders.
"Such self-administered treatment is, of course, very inexpensive and can be used in addition to other treatments, which potentially opens the door for easily enhancing treatment outcomes for a lot of children suffering from frequent stomach aches," van Tilburg added.
During the study, the researchers focused on functional abdominal pain, defined as persistent pain with no identifiable underlying disease that interferes with activities.
They looked at 34 children ages 6 to 15 years old who had been diagnosed with functional abdominal pain and received standard medical care.
Of them 19 were randomized to receive eight weeks of guided imagery treatment.
The guided imagery sessions were jointly developed by van Tilburg, co-investigator Olafur Palsson, Psy.D. and Marsha Turner, the study coordinator.
The treatment consisted of a series of four biweekly, 20-minute sessions and shorter 10-minute daily sessions. In session one, for example, the CD directs children to imagine floating on a cloud and relaxing progressively.
The session then gives them therapeutic suggestions and imagery for reducing discomfort, such as letting a special shiny object melt into their hand and then placing their hand on their belly, spreading warmth and light from the hand inside the tummy to make a protective barrier inside that prevents anything from irritating the belly.
In the group that used guided imagery, the children reported that the CDs were easy and enjoyable to use.
In that group, 73.3 percent reported that their abdominal pain was reduced by half or more by the end of the treatment course. Only 26.7 percent in the standard medical care only group achieved the same level of improvement.
The study concluded that guided imagery treatment plus medical care was superior to standard medical care alone for the treatment of functional abdominal pain.
The study appears in journal Pediatrics.