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How to Treat Migraines in Children

Migraines in children

People usually associate migraines with adults, and mostly adult women. While more women than men experience migraines (18 percent of women get migraines compared to 6 percent of men), it is less recognized that they also occur in children.

Approximately 1 in 20 children in the United States get migraines. The ratio of boys to girls is somewhat equal in children under the age of 10. But as they approach puberty, more girls are affected than boys.

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  • What’s the difference between a migraine and headache?
  • A migraine is one of many types of headache. The general term “headache” refers to what medical providers call a “tension headache,” and is characterized by a dull pain on the front, top, or sides of the head. On the other hand, migraine headaches are characterized by throbbing pain on one side of the head and often with sensitivity to light, sounds, and smells. Migraines can also cause nausea and vomiting. The pain usually gets worse during exercise or any type of stress (physical activity will not affect normal headaches).

    Migraines can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours (in extreme cases, six or longer). 

    - University of Illinois-Chicago, College of Medicine

What’s causing your child’s migraines?

The reason for migraines is not completely understood, but it’s most likely started by a constriction of blood vessels in the brain. This, in turn, triggers a pain-causing dilation of other blood vessels. This is a response to try to re-establish normal blood flow.

Here are a few of the things that can influence having a migraine headache.

1. Genetics

If either parent experiences migraines, their children have a higher risk.

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2. Illness

An illness such as a cold or flu can be a physical stress to your child’s body, which may trigger a migraine headache. Make sure your child stays hydrated during times of illness, as dehydration may be a trigger.

3. Stress

Highly emotional situations at school or home can cause your child to experience headaches or migraines. If stress is a factor, talk to your child’s doctor about other possible symptoms of stress such as anxiety, depression, and withdrawal from usually enjoyable activities.

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4. Trauma

If your child experiences trauma, particularly head trauma, this may induce a migraine headache, among other symptoms. If head trauma occurs, your child should seek medical attention to be examined and monitored.

5. Skipping meals or eating the wrong foods

Skipping meals can cause a drop in blood sugar, which for some people can trigger headaches or migraines.

Foods to avoid if your child is prone to migraines include:

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  • hot dogs
  • cold cuts
  • pizza
  • cheese
  • sugar
  • fast food
  • smoked meats or cheeses
  • pickled or marinated foods
  • foods high in MSG or nitrates

6. Caffeine

Caffeine may give your child a headache. It’s found in some carbonated drinks, coffee, tea, and even a small amount in chocolate.

7. Sleep (too much or too little)

If your child seems to be experiencing recurrent migraines, make sure they get enough rest and eat well on a consistent schedule. Poor sleep habits may bring on migraines.

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8. Hormones

After reaching puberty, girls are more affected than boys (three times as much), likely due to their hormones. Talk to your doctor if your daughter is experiencing more migraines during or before her period.

9. Traveling and weather changes

If they’re prone to migraines, a disruption of routine can affect your child’s well-being. Make sure they avoid other triggers and keep their daily schedule unaltered while traveling, if possible.

10. Chemicals in the air

Certain substances present in the air, including cigarette smoke, can trigger migraines. If anyone in your family is a smoker, discuss quitting. Second- and third-hand smoking can affect your family’s health.

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Should you take your child to the doctor for migraines?

Statistics show that most people experiencing migraines do not seek medical care. Though the exact causes of migraines remain somewhat elusive, talking to your doctor about your child’s headaches might help identify possible health problems that they can get treatment for.

Some of the testing may include:

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  • CT scanning
  • MRI
  • spinal tap if meningitis or another serious infectious disease is suspected

What to expect from a doctor’s visit for migraines

Your doctor will likely use a questionnaire about the intensity of the headaches, to try to identify patterns or triggers. You may be asked to keep a journal that will help pinpoint the reason behind your child’s pain.

Your child will be given a general health exam to assess their overall development. They may also get a neurological exam. This is to check for issues related to coordination, movement, and sensory perception, as well as ensuring that nerve function is intact.

Treatments for migraines in children

Your doctor will either prescribe over-the-counter pain medication (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) or prescription medication, depending on how serious your child’s migraines are. Before leaving the pediatrician’s office, make sure to discuss possible side effects of the migraine drugs and interactions with other medication your child is taking.

Other options to help manage symptoms include:

  • relaxation techniques (meditation, stress management, visualizing to reduce pain, massage)
  • visiting a counseling psychologist who can help your child develop better stress coping skills
  • seeing a nutritionist to assess your child’s diet and identify trigger foods
  • keeping a regular sleep schedule to help manage stress symptoms
  • acupuncture (might work better with older children)
  • other alternative medicine solutions (naturopathic, herbal, or Traditional Chinese Medicine treatments)

Next steps

It’s never easy to see your child experiencing any kind of pain. Migraines can be especially unsettling because of their intense nature. Though they can prevent children from doing their usual activities, migraines are not a life-threatening condition. Avoiding triggers usually helps reduce their frequency, though they might not be completely eliminated.

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It’s important to maintain a positive presence for your child and help them avoid getting panicked. Added stress could intensify the pain. Develop a “first response strategy” where your child sits out from any physical activity, avoids any strong stimuli (light, sound, smell), and gets adequate rest or a nap, if possible.

Some children who have migraines during childhood years will experience them as adults. But it’s important that they learn to manage their symptoms and know that help is available, as opposed to waiting it out. If it is recurrent and causes significant problems at home or school, your child’s pediatrician or neurologist will help your family come up with a treatment plan.

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