Chronic headaches – we think of them as something that affect mainly adults but the truth is that they affect children, too. And the worst kind headache for most people is a migraine headache. I find many parents are surprised to learn that a child can get migraine headaches just like an adult. But in fact, one study reported that by age 15, 5 percent of all children and adolescents had a history of migraine headaches.
Migraines Run in the Family
Children usually get headaches for the same reasons that adults do – as part of a cold or sinus infection or secondary to stress or dehydration, for example. Migraine headaches are usually more severe than other kinds of headaches and are also associated with other symptoms. We do not know the cause of migraine headaches, but theories include involvement of the blood vessels in the brain or by inherited abnormalities of the brain itself. Around 90 percent of those who suffer from migraines report a family member who also has migraines, so there likely is an inherited component to them.
A ‘classic migraine’ headache begins with an aura. An aura is a strange sensation such as seeing flashing lights or having a strange taste in the mouth that occurs just prior to the start of the headache. Not all migraines are preceded by this aura, however. Once the migraine starts, patients report a severe pounding headache, often on one side of their head. Frequent accompanying symptoms include nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to lights and sounds.
Due to the severity of these headaches, they are usually promptly brought to medical attention, and strong consideration is often given to other causes of these types of symptoms including a brain tumor or infection of the brain and spinal cord. Your doctor may order tests including a scan of the brain to rule out some of these possibilities.
Migraine Triggers and Treatments
As scary as a migraine headache can be, the good news is that they can be treated once the diagnosis has been made. As part of that treatment plan, I often ask families to begin to keep a headache diary. Some migraines are triggered by certain events, such as stress, poor sleeping, or exposure to a certain food or environment. By identifying and avoiding a known trigger, the occurrence of the migraine headache can be reduced or even eliminated. Often, though, there is no known trigger and treatment is aimed at addressing the symptoms as soon as possible once the migraine headache starts.
Most migraines can be effectively treated with over-the-counter remedies, but this should be discussed with your child’s physician to ensure appropriate safety and dosage of the medication. Prescription strength migraine medications are available for older children. Those who still are not able to achieve adequate control of their migraines or those who are too young for the usual medications can benefit from consultation with a neurologist to see if daily prophylactic medication would be beneficial.
Discuss Headaches with Your Doctor
As mentioned earlier, children with severe headaches should be seen by their physician to exclude any other serious cause of the headache. If you feel your child is having a lot of headaches, or are wondering if they could have migraine headaches, set up a time to discuss this with their doctor.