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updated 12/9/2010 6:46:22 PM ET 2010-12-09T23:46:22

Doses of probiotics, which are "good bacteria," may help alleviate frequent stomach and intestinal pain in children, according to a new study.

The results show treatment with a strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, nicknamed LGG, can reduce the severity and frequency of abdominal pain of children with irritable bowel syndrome.

The pain of those who received the bacteria continued to be lessened for weeks after the treatment was stopped, suggesting probiotics have a long-lasting effect, the researchers said.

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Additionally, the researchers got in touch with the children in the study through their primary care physicians, not from clinics specializing in treating the condition. This shows it's possible to identify children with irritable bowel syndrome early on, before they are referred to a specialist doctor, and begin treatment sooner, than what is now done, said study researcher Dr. Ruggiero Francavilla, a gastroenterologist at the University of Bari in Italy. Starting treatment earlier and lessening the kids' pain may prevent future complications.

"The longer the pain lasts, the higher the chance of having other disorders when the children grow, such as anxiety, depression, and being a hypochondriac," Francavilla said.

"I believe that if we treat these children very quickly and we resolve the pain, we may prevent the onset of some psychiatric disorders when they become adults," he said.

Good bacteria
About 10 to 15 percent of children experience recurrent abdominal pain, the researchers said. The pain can be due to irritable bowel syndrome — which is usually relieved by defecation — or can be "functional abdominal pain," which is not explained by another disease.

While LGG has been tested before in children with abdominal pain, the studies were small and showed mixed results.

The new study, which involved 141 children with irritable bowel syndrome or functional abdominal pain, was conducted in Italy between 2004 and 2008.

Researchers gave the kids either the probiotic or a placebo for eight weeks. Neither the doctors nor the patients were aware which treatment they received.

Following the treatment, the patients were followed up for another 8 weeks.

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During the treatment and follow-up, the severity and frequency of abdominal pain decreased for both groups, but the probiotic group experienced a more drastic reduction.

For instance, after 12 weeks, patients who took the probiotic reported experiencing, on average, 1.1 episodes of pain per week, compared with 3.7 weekly episodes before the treatment. Those who took the placebo reported experiencing 2.2 pain episodes per week, compared with 3.5 episodes initially.

And a greater percentage of parents of children who took the probiotic reported that their children experienced a decline in pain,compared with those whose kids took the placebo.

Among kids who took the probiotic, it was mostly children with irritable bowel syndrome who showed improvements, the researchers said.

Why does it work?
The results suggest LGG may be specifically beneficial for those with irritable bowel syndrome, the researchers said.

It's possible that children with irritable bowel syndrome have an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in their guts, which contributes to the pain, and the probiotics relieves pain by restoring the proper balance, Francavilla said.

Probiotics have also been suggested to reduce inflammation in the gut, as well as stimulate the release of analgesic substances that relieve pain.

The researchers noted they cannot be sure whether the beneficial effects will last for more than a few weeks after treatment is stopped.

The results were published in the journal Pediatrics.

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