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Digestive Problems

Richard A. Feely, D.O., FAAO, FCA, FAAMA

Newborn babies are frequent sufferers of gastrointestinal complaints. That shouldn't come as a surprise when one considers that the digestive system had no job to do in those first nine months in utero but is asked to be responsible for the entire sustenance of the body after birth. Digestive system troubles can range from spitting up to projectile vomiting and reflux, from mild difficulty burping to the hours of daily crying of a colicky baby. Although these problems do lessen as the digestive system matures, waiting for relief can be very hard on infants and parents.

Osteopathic manipulative treatment, which improves body function through correcting body structure, can have a significant role in assisting in the resolution of the digestive system distress of infancy. The troubles often have their origin when a difficult birth experience irritates the vagus nerve which controls much of the digestive system. When the bony misalignment and tissue tensions affecting the nerve are removed, the baby can handle its feedings and resultant gas better. Osteopathic treatment can also address connective tissue tension present around the abdominal organs, especially in the umbilical area and near where the esophagus meets the stomach. In infants who suffer from spitting up, vomiting or reflux, the normal clockwise motion of the abdominal fascia may be impaired and need corrective treatment.

Occasionally the digestive distress of breast-fed babies can be traced to foods in the mother's diet. When these offending foods are removed from her diet, the improvements in the baby can be dramatic. In the same way, babies who are bottle-fed may find relief in switching to a different formula.

Healthy Choices

Opinions vary on the topic of introduction of solid foods into a baby's diet. Most babies are not ready before six months and demonstrate their readiness by the presence of teeth and a keen interest in their parent's eating. Many physicians agree that wheat, dairy, eggs, citrus and honey should be avoided until after 12 months of age and introduced cautiously thereafter. Introducing only one new food at a time allows one to watch for allergic responses, often seen in the form of digestive upset or skin rashes, especially around the mouth and anus.

It can take up to five days of eating a new food before a negative reaction is seen. A food which results in an allergic type response should be removed from the diet and not tried again for at least several months. Because continued exposure to an allergic food fosters a more severe level of allergy, exercising this level of care when solid foods are introduced reaps benefits in a wider choice of foods later in life.

“You are what you eat” is a caution that is perhaps more relevant now than ever before. Depletion of topsoil has resulted in vegetables, fruits and grains lacking essential nutrients. The economic demands on farmers have resulted in the widespread use of pesticides, artificial ripening agents and fertilizers containing waste products which should not be recycled into our soils.

Dairy products and meat are contaminated by animal feed containing antibiotics, hormones and animal by-products. Organically grown and naturally processed food is free of potentially health damaging additives. Making healthy dietary choices during infancy and childhood, when all parts of the body are developing, is a crucial step in fostering healthy growth of every vital organ, bone, muscle and brain cell of the body.

A wide spectrum of health care practitioners agree that infancy is not a time to receive a diet high in sugar, salt and fat content found in most processed foods. Offering ourselves and our children healthy diets is a big challenge but one worth taking.

Childhood Complaints

Vague, non-specific digestive complaints are commonly seen in childhood. Tummy aches and nausea are the cause of days home from school for many children and rarely does a standard medical work-up determine the cause.

Osteopathic evaluation often reveals that the fascia (connective tissue layer) which covers the abdominal organs is pulled in a counterclockwise direction. For healthy digestion this motion should move clockwise, compatible with the peristaltic motion of the intestines as it moves food from mouth to rectum. When the facial motion has reversed, complaints such as constipation, nausea and stomach aches are common. Osteopathic treatment assists the body in correcting the motion of this fascia and restoring normal function.

Both the vagus nerve and nerves originating in the lower portions of the spine are essential to a healthy digestive system. Children who have suffered injury, especially to the lower back or sacrum (at the base of the spine), may be experiencing digestive problems as a result of this trauma. Injury to the pelvis, either traumatic or surgical, can result in poor function of the sling of muscles at the lowest part of the pelvis, called the pelvic diaphragm. This sling of muscles operates like the thoracic diaphragm and, when functioning normally, moves up and down with respiration. This diaphragm-like motion is essential to the health of the digestive system, and it is vital to restore it in children suffering from constipation, recovering from pelvic injury or after surgery in this area. A hard fall to the lower back, sacrum or groin can be enough to impact gastrointestinal health.

Urinary Problems

Restoration of motion in the pelvic diaphragm is also an essential part of the osteopathic management of problems such as bladder infections and menstrual cramps. The problem of nighttime bed wetting is a complex one which may or may not respond to osteopathic manipulative treatment. In some children, treatment can help to normalize the neural control relevant to bladder emptying and may be very helpful in this clinical problem.

Some children are genetically predisposed to the problem and don't “grow out of it” until the age at which the problem resolved for their affected parent.

The less common problem of bladder reflux may respond to osteopathic treatment of the facial strains which are present where the urethra meets the bladder.

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