“Owie, my head hurts.” When a child complains of a headache, parents aren’t likely to think of migraines, but the debilitating condition affects many children. Half of all migraine sufferers experience their first attack before age 12, and 10 percent of school-age children have suffered through one. Before puberty, migraines are more common in boys, while girls are more prone through their teen years and beyond.
We often think of a migraine as a terrible headache, but that’s not quite true. So, what is it? A migraine is thought to be an episodic brain malfunction. Research has linked them to inherited abnormalities in certain areas of the brain. A study in the journal Radiology showed that migraine sufferers have reduced cortical thickness and surface area in pain-processing regions of the brain, compared with individuals who never have migraines.
A lot is still unknown about migraine causes, but it’s clear genetics play a role. Children have a 50 percent chance of being predisposed to these debilitating attacks if one parent gets them. That increases to 75 percent if both parents get migraines. Children may also inherit triggers, such as fatigue, bright lights or weather changes.
Migraine symptoms show up in many forms. A headache – specifically, an intense, throbbing pain in one area of the head – may be the most common. There’s also lack of appetite; abdominal pain; vomiting; dizziness; mood changes; and sensitivity to touch, sound, light and odors. In children, these migraine symptoms are usually shorter and less frequent. Parents should note that two common types of migraines include little to no headache. Abdominal migraines consist of abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. Confusional migraines, a rarer variant, begin with confusion and disorientation, followed by vomiting.
If your child suffers from frequent or disabling migraine symptoms, consult a health care provider. Treatment recommendations may include sleep or over-the-counter products, which could be helpful if given early in the attack.
In some instances, if frequent migraines don't become controlled with medical recommendations, you may need to talk to your doctor to rule out a more serious health issue.
Regardless of the tactics for relief, it’s important to recognize your child’s triggers and symptoms so you can help prevent attacks or treat them early, as leaving migraines untreated may impact quality of life. Being prepared can help your child avoid the pain, worry, missed school and interruption of daily life that migraines may bring.