Migraines in kids: Help your child through the pain

If you’ve ever had a migraine, you’d probably agree you wouldn’t wish one on anyone, much less a child. However, migraines happen to kids too, but you can learn how to recognize them and help your child through the pain.

“About 5 percent of all children experience migraine and this increases to 10 percent during the teenage years,” said Elizabeth Doll, M.D., neurologist with Norton Children’s Hospital and University of Louisville Physicians – Child Neurology. “About half of all migraine sufferers have their first attack by age 12.”

Migraine isn’t just “a bad headache.” It’s a complicated neurological disease, with crushing head pain and other symptoms including nausea and vomiting; dizziness; and sensitivity to touch, sound, light and odors.

“In the past, migraine headaches were thought to be caused by changes in blood flow to the brain,” Dr. Doll said. “We are now finding that it’s not that simple. Migraines are thought to be caused by several different factors, including changes in brain chemicals and electrical signaling. Genetics also plays a large role.”

It’s quite common for kids who have migraines to miss a lot of school and be unable to participate in after-school and weekend activities. In fact, these kids are absent from school twice as often as kids who don’t.

Common signs of migraine

  • Pounding or throbbing head pain, usually in one part of the head, that gets worse with movement
  • Vision changes, called aura
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, sound and smells

Additional signs in some kids

  • Mood changes
  • Dizziness
  • Dilated pupils
  • Confusion
  • Weakness on one side of body

When should your child get medical attention?

Dr. Doll recommends first discussing your child’s symptoms with your pediatrician. Usually, there are simple lifestyle changes that can be made to avoid migraine triggers. Over-the-counter medications also can help when used sparingly. For more frequent or severe migraines, a referral to a child neurologist may be needed.

RELATED: 1 mom, 1 teen and 1 scary migraine

Common migraine triggers

Until you learn what triggers a migraine, it’s best to keep a diary or journal of activities, food, sleep and when migraines occur so you can determine what causes them. Then, work to ensure your child:

  • Gets the right amount of sleep and sticks to it: Too little, too much or changes in the amount of sleep all can trigger migraine.
  • Manages stress: If your child gets anxious over big tests or life events, or she struggles with emotions, find resources to learn how to manage stress. Stay alert to things going on in your child’s life so you can help her navigate them.
  • Eats right and on schedule: Missing meals or eating at inconsistent times is a big trigger. So are certain foods, the most common being chocolate, caffeine, MSG (found in processed foods), aged cheeses and soy foods. Your child should stick with eating whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.
  • Stays hydrated: Your child should drink plenty of water throughout the day and not just when she feels thirsty.

“Another common trigger for migraine is hormone changes that come with puberty and menstruation,” Dr. Doll said. “That can’t be avoided, but there are ways to help your child through the pain.”

How to help your child through a migraine

Once your child has been diagnosed with migraines and you know what to expect, they become more manageable and less scary. Here are some tips for getting through the pain:

  • Use medication prescribed by your child’s pediatrician or neurologist, or over-the-counter medicine as directed by a doctor.
  • Have the child lie down in a cool, dark, quiet room.
  • Show your child a relaxation technique: Relax all the muscles in the body, then stretch or contract the muscles, then relax; repeat.
  • Place a cool washcloth or ice pack on the child’s forehead.
  • Massage the child’s temples, neck or shoulders.
  • Offer ginger ale and saltines to help ease nausea.

New research has found that there are warning signs before a migraine starts. A study found that more than 40 percent of kids who get migraines experience extreme fatigue and sudden moodiness up to 24 hours before their head starts hurting. Noticing these signs gives you a chance to start medication or have your child hydrate and get some rest, which could keep the migraine from happening.

Growing to help more kids, thanks to community support

More than 15,000 children come to Norton Children’s Hospital every year for neurological care. Thanks to support from University of Louisville Physicians – Child Neurology and the Children’s Hospital Foundation, the hospital now has 11 pediatric neurologists and 15 neurology nurse practitioners. This means kids have more timely access to child neurology expertise.

In most cases, children with a referral from a pediatrician can be seen by a child neurologist within a few days. For more information on child neurology, call (502) 629-KIDS.


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