Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome

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Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome



Cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) is a rare idiopathic disorder characterized by recurring periods of vomiting in an otherwise normal child or adult. It was first described in 1882 by a physician named Gee. CVS is sometimes called abdominal migraine because it may be caused by some of the same mechanisms in the central nervous system that cause migraine headaches.


Children in the pre-school or early school years are most susceptible to CVS, although it can appear anywhere from infancy to adulthood. One doctor reports that 43 of the 233 patients with CVS that he has treated were adults when their symptoms began. The average age of patients at onset is 5.2 years, but CVS has been diagnosed in patients as old as 73. This disorder was identified over a century ago, but its cause is still unknown. Episodes can be triggered by emotional stress or infections (particularly sinusitis), can last hours or days, and can return at any time. Abdominal pain is a frequent feature.
CVS appears to affect all races equally. The female:male ratio has been reported as 11:9.

Causes and symptoms

The cause of CVS is still a mystery. Similarities to migraine suggest a common cause, but as yet no firm evidence has surfaced. It is known, however, that 82% of patients with CVS have a family history of migraine compared to 14% of control subjects. Patients can usually identify some factor that precedes an attack. Vomiting can be protracted and lead to such complications as dehydration, chemical imbalances, and tearing, burning, and bleeding of the esophagus (swallowing tube). Between attacks, there is no sign of any illness.
CVS has four distinct stages or phases:
  • Prodrome. A prodrome is a warning symptom (or group of symptoms) that appears just before an acute attack of an illness. Patients with CVS often feel pain in the abdomen a few minutes or hours before the vomiting starts. Adults with CVS often have anxiety or panic attacks as a prodrome.
  • Episode phase. During this phase, the patient is actively nauseated and vomiting. He or she may also feel drowsy or exhausted.
  • Recovery phase.
  • Symptom-free interval.


The most important and difficult aspect of CVS is to be sure there is not an acute and life-threatening event in progress. So many different diseases can cause vomiting—from bowel obstruction to epilepsy—that an accurate and timely diagnosis is critical. Because there is no way to prove the diagnosis of CVS, the physician must instead disprove every other diagnosis. This process, which is known as a diagnosis of exclusion, can be tedious, expensive, exhausting, and involve almost every system in the body. The first episode may be diagnosed as a stomach flu when nothing more serious turns up. Only after several episodes and several fruitless searches for a cause will a physician normally consider the diagnosis of CVS.
A careful history-taking is critical to making the correct diagnosis of CVS. A family history of migraine, particularly on the mother's side of the family, should alert the doctor to the possibility that the patient has CVS.
In some cases, the doctor may refer the patient to a psychiatrist for evaluation in order to rule out anxiety disorders or an eating disorder.


Several different medications have given good results in small trials. The antimigraine drugs amitriptyline and cyproheptadine performed well for one study group. Propranolol is sometimes effective, and erythromycin helped several patients in one study, not because it is an antibiotic but because it irritates the stomach and encourages it to move its contents forward instead of in reverse.
Another medication that has been reported to be successful in treating children with CVS is dexmedetomidine (Precedex), a drug originally developed to sedate patients on respirators in intensive care settings. The researchers found that dexmedetomidine relieved the anxiety as well as the nausea associated with CVS.

Alternative treatment

Constitutional homeopathic medicine can work well in treating CVS because it addresses rebalancing the whole person, not just the symptoms.
According to a 1999 article in the journal Medical Acupuncture, weekly outpatient acupuncture treatments are also helpful to some children with CVS.


The disease may go on for many years without a change in pattern. If the acute complications of prolonged vomiting can be successfully prevented or managed, most patients can lead normal lives between episodes. Medications may ease the symptoms during attacks.



Fleisher, David R., MD. "Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome in Adults." Code "V": The Official Newsletter of the CVSA—USA/Canada 11 (Spring 2003): 1-3.
Khasawinah, T. A., A. Ramirez, J. W. Berkenbosch, and J. D. Tobias. "Preliminary Experience with Dexmedetomidine in the Treatment of Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome." American Journal of Therapeutics 10 (July-August 2003): 303-307.
Li, B. U., and L. Misiewicz. "Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome: A Brain-Gut Disorder." Gastroenterology Clinics of North America 32 (September 2003): 997-1019.
Lin, Yuan-Chi, MD, and Brenda Golianu, MD. "Acupuncture as Complementary Treatment for Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome." Medical Acupuncture 13 (March 1999): 1-4.
Sundaram, Shikha, MD, and B. Uk Li, MD. "Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome." eMedicine August 10, 2002.


Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome Association in the United States and Canada (CVSA—USA/Canada). 3585 Cedar Hill Road, NW, Canal Winchester, OH 43110. (614) 837-2586.
National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc. (NORD). 55 Kenosia Avenue, P. O. Box 1968, Danbury, CT 06813. (800) 999-6673 or (203) 744-0100.


National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome. NIH Publication No. 01-4548. Bethesda, MD: NIDDK, 2001.

Key terms

Abdominal migraine — Another term that is sometimes used for CVS.
Idiopathic — Of unknown cause or spontaneous origin. CVS is sometimes called an idiopathic disorder because its cause(s) are still not known.
Prodrome — A symptom or group of symptoms that appears shortly before an acute attack of illness. The term comes from a Greek word that means "running ahead of."
Gale Encyclopedia of Medicine. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Cyclic vomiting syndrome in children: experience with 181 cases from southern Iran.
On the subject of the cyclic vomiting syndrome. Arch Pediatr 2003; 10: 385-91.
DISCUSSION: Cyclic vomiting syndrome was first described by Samuel Gee in 1882 (3) and named cyclic vomiting by Smith in 1937 (4).
Criteria for Cyclic vomiting syndrome (2008): At least 5 attacks in any interval, or a minimum of 3 attacks during a 6-mo period Episodic attacks of intense nausea and vomiting lasting 1 h-10 days and occurring at least 1 wk apart.
(15) This disease also raises the question of whether a urine drug screen should be added to the initial evaluation of patients with Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome. We recommend continued counseling to abstain from marijuana when the diagnosis is made.
The Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome Association ( is establishing a referral network and provides resources for physicians who want to learn more about CVS.
The Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome Association (CVSA) provides support for these families through telephone calls, email, an electronic bulletin board, websites, literature and a newsletter.
Recently, a new state of the art diagnostic and treatment center for CVS opened at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, The Center for Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome. This center is dedicated to the diagnosis, treatment and continued research on CVS.
However, because cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) is poorly recognized among health care providers, the condition is often not ideally managed or is misdiagnosed altogether, said Dr.
MILWAUKEE -- Cyclic vomiting syndrome is more common than idiopathic epilepsy or type 1 diabetes in children, yet many physicians are unfamiliar with its diagnosis and treatment, Dr.
A pediatric functional gastrointestinal disorder characterized by recurrent, stereotypical episodes of nausea and vomiting lasting hours to days and separated by symptom-free intervals lasting weeks or months, cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS) affects about 2% of the nonpatient pediatric population, said Dr.
Eighty percent of patients with cyclic vomiting syndrome have a history of migraines on the maternal side.