Migraine is a type of recurring headache that involves blood vessels, nerves, and brain chemicals. Sensations called auras may come before a migraine. Auras can include visual changes or numbness and tingling. There are 2 types of migraines:
- Migraine occurring with an aura
- Migraine occurring without an aura
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Migraine headaches can affect a child’s performance in school, relationships with friends and family, and other factors in a child’s life.
The precise reason that a child is susceptible to migraines is unknown. Factors that may play a role include:
- Genetics and environmental triggers
- Changes in a nerve that serves as a major pain pathway
- Imbalance in brain chemicals, like serotonin
Factors that can trigger a migraine include:
- Physical exertion or too little physical activity
- Too much sleep or too little sleep
- Missing a meal
- Motion sickness from traveling
- Overuse of pain medications
- Certain foods such as chocolate, citrus fruits, dairy, processed meats, or fried foods
- Certain environmental triggers such as flashing lights, odors, loud noises, or weather changes
Migraines are more common in males. However, it is more common in females after puberty. The average age of onset is 7 years old (boys) and 10 years old (girls).
Factors that increase your child’s chance of migraines may include:
- Family history of migraines
- Infantile colic
Migraines occur in phases that may include:
A warning may come before a migraine. In the hours or days before the headache, symptoms may include:
- A change in mood
- A change in behavior
- A change in the level of activity
- Food craving or decreased appetite
- Sensitivity to light
The most common aura is visual. The aura lasts about 15-30 minutes. It may produce the following sensations:
- Flashing lights, spots, or zig zag lines
- Temporary partial loss of vision
- Speech difficulties
- Weakness in an arm or leg
- Numbness or tingling in the face and hands
The Migraine Headache
Migraine pain starts within an hour of the aura ending. Symptoms include:
A headache (usually on one side but may involve both sides) that often feels:
- Moderate or severe in intensity
- Throbbing or pulsating
- More severe with movement
- Nausea or vomiting
- Sensitivity to light or sound
A Post-Headache Period
Migraines usually last from 4-72 hours. They often go away with sleep. After the headache, your child may experience:
- Trouble concentrating
- Sore muscles
- Mood changes
You will be asked about your child’s symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your child may also be given a neurological exam. The diagnosis is often based on your child's symptoms. To rule out other complications, your doctor may order imaging tests such as:
The doctor may order blood tests or other tests before starting treatment.
Migraine therapy aims to:
- Prevent headaches
- Reduce headache severity and frequency
- Restore your child’s ability to function
- Improve your child’s quality of life
Treatment options include:
Medications often used as first line agents in children with headaches include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Aspirin is not recommended for children with a current or recent viral infection. Check with your doctor before giving your child aspirin.
Your child's doctor may also recommend migraine medication.
Therapy may also be used to reduce the length and frequency of migraine headaches. It may be used with or without medication and may include cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, or relaxation methods.
Other Treatment During the Migraine
To help your child during a migraine:
- Apply cold compresses to painful areas of your child’s head.
- Have your child lie in a dark, quiet room.
- Try applying constant gentle pressure to your child’s temples.
- Try to help your child fall asleep.
Keep a diary to understand what factors may trigger your child's migraines.
Some steps that may help prevent future migraines includes:
- Have you or your child keep a diary. It will help identify what triggers migraines and what helps relieve them.
- Maintain regular sleep patterns, even during the weekend or on vacation.
- Learn stress management and relaxations techniques.
- Do not skip meals.
- Exercise regularly.
Foods are not proven to trigger migraine, but consider keeping track of what your child eats. Foods suspected by some to trigger migraine include:
- Nuts and peanut butter
- Beans—lima, navy, pinto, and others
- Aged or cured meats
- Aged cheese
- Processed or canned meat
- Caffeine—intake or withdrawal
- Canned soup
- Buttermilk or sour cream
- Meat tenderizer
- Brewer's yeast
- Red plums
- Snow peas
- Soy sauce
- Anything with MSG (monosodium glutamate), tyramine, or nitrates
There are no current guidelines to prevent migraines in children since the cause is not known. If your child is prone to migraines, talk to their doctor about prophylactic medications.
American Headache Society
The National Migraine Association
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Headache in children. National Headache Foundation website. Available at:
http://www.headaches.org/education/Headache%5FTopic%5FSheets/Headache%5Fin%5FChildren. Published October 25, 2007. Accessed September 15, 2015.
Migraine in children and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated April 23, 2015. Accessed September 15, 2015.
Migraines. American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at:
http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/migraines.html. Updated April 2014. Accessed September 15, 2015.
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