Migraines are hard for adults, but when kids get them, it can be devastating. After all, migraines aren’t just a nuisance and they aren’t just “bad headaches.” They’re often debilitating.
Here’s something most parents and people with migraines want to set straight: Migraines aren’t just intense head pain. They cause additional symptoms of nausea, vomiting, sensory sensitivity, and even mood changes. Now imagine a kid going through that once a month, weekly, or even daily — it’s a pretty harrowing experience. And on top of physical symptoms, some kids can develop anxiety, constantly fearing that another painful attack is just around the corner.
For kids, it’s not as simple as popping a pill. Most parents, who want nothing but the best and healthiest for their child, want to avoid medication. In fact, it’s often the last thing parents want to give because of the adverse, even long-term, side effects. Which leaves the question … what can parents do?
The haunting feeling of watching your child in pain
Elizabeth Bobrick’s daughter began having migraines when she turned 13. The pain was so intense her daughter would start screaming.
“Migraines sometimes have a component of anxiety — our child’s did,” says Bobrick. In her case, she’d treat the migraine first and then support her daughter through the anxiety after. She’d hear people say things like, “She needs to stop being so anxious.”
This fundamental misunderstanding of what a migraine does has never been helpful, even if schools and guidance counselors are willing to work with the family. The guidance counselor at Bobrick’s daughter’s school was sympathetic and worked with them whenever her daughter had to miss classes. But they didn’t seem to truly understand that migraines weren’t just “really bad headaches.” Not understanding the extent of anxiety and damage migraines can cause — from interrupting a child’s education to their social life — adds a lot of frustration for parents who want nothing more than their child to be pain-free.
It’s not always an issue of medication or treatment
Bobrick’s daughter went through a series of migraine medications — from mild to more powerful drugs — that appeared to work, but there was also a bigger problem. These medications would knock her daughter out so hard that it’d take her two full days to recover. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, 10 percent of school-age children experience migraines and yet many of the drugs are created for adults. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine also found the effect of migraine medication to be less convincing for children.
As a child, Amy Adams, a massage therapist from California, had serious migraines, too. Her dad gave her the prescription sumatriptan (Imitrex). It didn’t work for her at all. But, when her dad began taking her to the chiropractor as a child, her migraines went from every day to once a month.
Chiropractic is quickly becoming popular as an alternative treatment for migraines. According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 3 percent of children get chiropractic treatment for various conditions. And according to the American Chiropractic Association, adverse events like dizziness or pain after chiropractic treatments are very rare (nine events in 110 years), but they can happen — which is why you should make sure alternative therapists have the right license and documentation.
Naturally Adams turned to the same treatment when her own daughter began having migraines. She takes her daughter to a chiropractor regularly, especially when her daughter feels a migraine coming on. This treatment has reduced the frequency and intensity of migraines her daughter gets. But sometimes it’s not enough.
Adams says she feels lucky she’s able to empathize with her daughter’s migraine pain since she gets them herself.
“It’s really hard to see your kid in that kind of pain. A lot of times there isn’t much you can do,” Adams empathizes. She finds comfort creating a soothing atmosphere for her daughter by offering massages.
Ripple effects on kids’ education, life, and health
But these treatments aren’t cures. Adams would have to pick up her daughter from school or email teachers, explaining why her daughter can’t complete homework. “It’s so important to listen and give them the time they need to feel better, not just pushing through for the sake of school,” she says.
This is something Dean Dyer, a mother and author in Texas, agrees with. “It was scary and frustrating,” Dyer says as she recalls her son’s early migraine experiences, which began when he was 9 years old. He’d get them several times a month. They’d be so debilitating that he’d miss out on school and activities.
Dyer, who has some health issues of her own, says she knew she had to be her child’s advocate and not give up on finding answers. She recognized the symptoms of a migraine right away and took her son to his doctor.
“He was allergic to mountain cedar and other things, which are prevalent in our area, especially in the fall,” says Dyer. Doctors tested him for allergies and her son began receiving allergy shots.
Avoiding triggers and treating allergies has helped Dyer’s son. Before he learned that mountain cedar triggered his migraines, Dyer says her son would get them several times a month, causing him to miss school and activities. Since he began receiving allergy shots, he rarely has migraines.
“Some people never do find the cause, but I am thankful we had an ‘easy’ solution after several months of him suffering,” says Dyer.
Remember: It’s not anyone’s fault
While everyone can have a vastly different reason for their migraines, navigating them and the pain they cause isn’t all too different — whether you’re an adult or a child. But finding a treatment and relief for your child is a journey of love and care.
For some kids, a migraine is a serious neurological event. It can be especially difficult for children who don’t understand why they’re experiencing pain, missing out on school, and time with their friends.
It took Bobrick’s family until their daughter was in college to find a preventative medication, propranolol, a beta blocker that reduces your heart’s workload. Now, their daughter only gets occasional migraines when she’s stressed and isn’t getting enough sleep or eating enough, which are her personal triggers. “It can’t be relieved by cold, heat, menthol, or whatever other home remedies you may hear about,” says Bobrick.
Even in the most painful times it’s important to remember you’re doing your best. “It’s not your fault. It’s not the child’s fault,” says Bobrick.
Kathi Valeii is a former birth educator turned writer. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Vice, Everyday Feminism, Ravishly, SheKnows, The Establishment, The Stir, and elsewhere. Kathi’s writing focuses on lifestyle, parenting, and justice-related issues, and she particularly enjoys exploring the intersections of feminism and parenting.