Understanding Migraines in Children

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Few things can shake a parent up more than when their child is in pain. If you’re a migraine sufferer with a child that is complaining of a headache, it can be even more unsettling because you know firsthand how bad that pain can be.

Do Children Get Migraines?

Yes, headaches and migraines remain one of the most common health complaints from children. In fact, close to 10 percent of children and an even higher percentage of adolescents have suffered a migraine attack at some point in their life. 

Also, migraines carry a strong genetic basis, meaning that they tend to run in families — so if you suffer from migraines, don’t be too surprised if your little one does too.

What are the Symptoms of Migraine in Children?

 Children may suffer the same symptoms that their parents did, though depending on their age it may prove difficult for them to explain. Some migraine-specific symptoms in children include:

  • Increased sensitivity to light
  • Unusual smells and sounds
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Emotional or behavioral disturbances at home or at school

Are Childhood Migraines Just Like Adult Migraines?

Unlike adult and adolescent migraines, which tend to be painful on one side of the head, childhood migraines may be felt across the front of the forehead or on both sides of the head. In some instances, a pediatric migraine may also cause abdominal pain, vomiting, or vertigo.

It’s interesting to note that while women tend to suffer migraines more than men in adulthood, during childhood the youngest migraine sufferers tend to be boys. After puberty, girls tend to have more migraines than boys.

What Triggers Migraines in Children?

Migraine headaches may be triggered by stress, both good and bad. Children may complain of headaches more often during the school year, than over the summer, which you might mistake as a way for them to miss school.  Yet the beginning of a school year can bring on a host of migraine triggers including

  • change in sleep patterns
  • different breakfast and lunch routines
  • change in weather
  • not drinking as much water
  • anxiety of new teacher, peers, and school-related activities

What Can Be Done to Treat My Child’s Migraine?

Take your child’s complaints seriously and work with a pediatrician who will also take your child’s complaints seriously.

Your pediatrician will ask you and your child questions about his headache and conduct a physical exam. A MRI or CT scan of the head may be required to determine if there are any structural changes to the brain. If there are any abnormalities, your child may be referred to a specialist or pediatric neurologist.

There are some medications that might be beneficial to treating migraine in children. You may be told to give him children’s ibuprofen or acetaminophen for pain. Please note that aspirin should not be given to children under 15 years old because it can lead to a syndrome called Reye’s syndrome.

A supplement or prescription of low-dose antidepressants or anti-seizure medications may also be helpful for your child in preventing migraines. This all being said, it’s important that you not administer any medication to your child without first consulting with a doctor.

Your doctor may also work with your child on preventive therapies that could help him or her cope with or avoid migraine triggers:

  • Get adequate sleep
  • Drink plenty of water and eat meals at regular intervals
  • Avoid overscheduling
  • Minimize caffeine intake
  • Maintain a healthy weight — obesity is linked to migraines in children
  • Reduce academic pressure and school-related stress
  • Develop positive coping strategies for handling any conflict with family and friends
  • Maintain a headache diary

And strategies can also be taught to help children and their families manage migraines:

  • Apply cool compress to the forehead
  • Take regular deep breaths
  • Relax and take a nap in a dark room
  • Learn strategies like meditation or biofeedback

A Word from Tips For Healthy Living

Continue remaining an advocate for your child’s migraine health. By taking an active role and creating a preventive and therapy plan with your child’s doctor, you are already helping them.

Edited by Dr. Colleen Doherty, MD 

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