Your Child's Headaches May Be Migraines

Children's headaches are usually tension-related, and migraines are often inherited.
Children's headaches are usually tension-related, and migraines are often inherited.
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If you've ever experienced a migraine as an adult, you know how painful it is — and how it can wreak havoc with your work and social life. Unfortunately, children also suffer from migraines, but they often go untreated because children are unable to describe the pain, or their parents assume they are having an "everyday-type" of headache.

Not All Headaches Are Alike

A headache is characterized by some type of head pain or other symptoms, but there are different kinds of headaches with their own set of causes and treatments. In many cases, when people think about headaches, they often think of adults, not kids. However, most children experience some type of headache by the time they reach high school — and often for the same reasons as adults.


Fortunately, only a small percentage of childhood headaches are due to disease, such as a tumor, or a head injury. The facts show that most childhood headaches are tension-induced, either from stress or a lack of sleep. Some headaches are due to certain types of food, or to environmental factors (perfumes, dry heat, etc.).

Though headaches in children are rare, 20 percent of kids between the ages of five and 17 years regularly suffer with some type of headache. Three-quarters of these young headache-sufferers have tension-type headaches; the other 5 percent have migraines.

What's a Migraine?

It's often referred to as a vascular headache since it is induced by blood vessels narrowing or expanding. This action can result in head pain, or other symptoms such as balance or vision difficulties.

Most children who suffer with migraines have inherited them. If migraines run in your family, be on the lookout to see if your child experiences car or motion sickness. This may be an early indicator that he or she will develop migraines later.

Migraines may be diagnosed in children as young as 4 years of age. Studies have shown that most boys who develop migraines will outgrow them. Unfortunately, the frequency of migraines may increase in teenage girls due to hormonal changes.


What Are the Symptoms, Doc?

If you suspect your child suffers from migraines, here's what to look for:

  • Pain on both sides of the head (especially in younger children).
  • One-sided head pain (especially in older children).
  • Recurrent vomiting.
  • Frequent unexplained dizzy spells.
  • Recurring abdominal pain.
  • Increased eye tearing.
  • Visual changes.

When it comes to migraines, children are different. Some may have one or more of the above complaints.

How You Can Help Your Child

Keep a diary of the following information and share it with your child's pediatrician:

  • How many headaches does your child have a week?
  • Where is the headache located?
  • How painful is the headache?
  • How long does the headache last?
  • Do any foods, drinks or activities seem to set them off?
  • Does your child's headaches affect his/her normal activity?

My Child Has a Migraine

There are many non-drug therapies, including stress management and biofeedback, to help alleviate migraine headaches in children and teens. These approaches may work alone or in combination with the proper medication. To help your child feel better, it's important that he or she eats healthy foods, stays in a good sleep routine, and gets enough exercise.

As for medication, most children feel better with acetaminophen (Tylenol and other brands), as well as anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen. But if these drugs don't relieve your child's pain within several hours, you may need prescription medication. Some drugs are used to prevent or lessen the frequency of migraines, while others are used for immediate pain relief.

Thankfully, we now have many non-narcotic (nonaddicting) options to choose from. Also, children who suffer with frequent headaches may develop anxiety and depression. So it's important to recognize this early, to educate them as to why they get headaches, and to reassure them that nothing is growing inside their brains.

Copyright 2003, Dr. Rob Danoff Robert Danoff, D.O., M.S., is a family physician. He is program director of Family Practice Residency Frankford Hospitals, Jefferson Health System, Philadelphia, Pa. He also is a medical correspondent for The Comcast Network, CN8, contributing writer to the New York Times and writes a weekly medical column for the Bucks Courier Times, Bucks County Pa.

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