Pediatric Migraines: Things Every Parent Should Know

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Migraines can occur in teens, children and even toddlers.

When you think of migraine headaches, you might imagine an adult experiencing severe, crippling head pain from time to time. Migraines are not just a health problem that affects adults, however. Children can get them as well, and they can be just as severe.

Symptoms of Pediatric Migraines

Like a migraine occurring in adults, a pediatric migraine is a severe headache, experienced by a child, with other uncomfortable symptoms. The pain of a migraine usually radiates throughout the entire head, though it may sometimes only affect one side. Regular headaches are often short in duration, whereas migraines last between 3 hours to 3 days. They are also often accompanied by other physical symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, blurry vision, light sensitivity, constipation, lightheadedness, and dizziness. In children, a migraine’s effects may be less painful than in adults, while the other physical symptoms can be more severe. For children that are unable to describe their own symptoms, the signs of a migraine onset include lethargy, irritability, loss of appetite, sensitivity to light, drastic mood swings, and constant yawning. Before a migraine begins, many sufferers describe a type of “premonition” that they are about to happen, known as auras. Auras can take the form of:

  • Vision problems (such as sight loss, or seeing shapes, colors, spots, or flashes),
  • Difficulty remembering words (aphasia), or slurred speech,
  • Feelings of “pins & needles” types of sensations, or the feeling that a part of the body has “fallen asleep”,
  • Temporary weakness in the limbs (hemiplegic migraines).

Auras last around an hour or less, getting worse with time, and can accompany the onset of the migraine headache. Before the aura occurs, children may also go through a longer period of time (1-2 days) where they begin yawning uncontrollably, or are more cranky, hyperactive, hungry, or morose than usual. Complaints of stiffness/soreness in the neck are also common during this time. This period and auras may not occur in every child, though you should attempt to remain vigilant for signs of them, and plan accordingly.

Causes of Pediatric Migraines

Both pediatric migraines and migraines in adults remain mysterious to doctors, though studies have suggested that they might by inherited (especially in hemiplegic migraines, where sufferers experience limb weakness). This means that if a child’s parents suffer migraines, there is a much higher chance that the child will experience them (especially if the mother suffers from them). While the exact cause of pediatric migraines is unknown, some patients report “triggers” that may cause the onset of symptoms. Common triggers include stress, loud noises, food additives, strenuous physical activity, anxiety, and depression.

How common are Pediatric Migraines?

According to the Migraine Trust, approximately 10% of children suffer from true migraine headaches, and about half of the sufferers experienced their first migraine before they reached age 12. Migraine headaches have also been diagnosed in toddlers as young as 18 months. The Migraine Research Foundation reports that about 8% of boys and 23% of girls will suffer from at least one migraine before they turn 17. While many children grow out of migraine headaches, most do not. Approximately 60% of pediatric migraine sufferers continue to have migraines past the age of 30.

Treating Pediatric Migraines

There is no miracle cure for pediatric migraines, but there are some things you can do for your children to make their condition more comfortable. If your child can alert you when a migraine is starting, over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help. Additionally, resting, turning off bright lights, and avoiding loud sounds can help reduce the severity of migraine pain. For regular sufferers of migraines, a doctor can prescribe medication to help with the condition. These specific anti-migraine drugs are called triptans, and can be taken when a migraine starts. They can help relieve pain in as little as half an hour.

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