Ellen Schnackenberg is an active patient advocate and blogger at Migraine.com.
There is a myth that children don’t experience migraine attacks. The truth is that migraine doesn’t discriminate on the basis of age, gender, skin color or anything else. Although they are more likely to occur as a child ages, even infants can suffer migraine. Our family experienced this when our son began experiencing them when he was only a few months old.
Diagnosing migraine in children can be tricky because the symptoms of migraine are common to other disorders and diseases as well. There is no test for migraine disease, and children often lack the vocabulary to be able to tell us what symptoms they are experiencing. Compounding the problem, children are often fearful their pain is something catastrophic like a brain tumor, and will often be afraid to talk to their parents about their symptoms.
The diagnosis of migraine is one of exclusion – once you’ve excluded everything else, migraine is more likely to be the culprit. Testing for these other things will be important though, because it is vital to rule out serious disorders and diseases and not simply to assume migraine or other headache is the reason for the child’s symptoms. Please understand that your child’s doctor will order these tests to rule bad things out, not because he/she suspects your child has a serious disease or disorder.
Infants and children present with Migraine symptoms that are different from adults. We’re not sure why. Knowing the symptoms of migraine in children is important, especially if there is a history of migraine or other headache disorders in the child’s family.
Some of the symptoms a child may have include:
- Pain that is often pounding or throbbing on both sides or in the front of the head in young children. As children get older, symptoms usually become isolated to one side. Sides may change from one attack to another.
- Symptoms that may seem flu-like, such as irritability; nausea and/or vomiting; a desire to sleep or lay down in a dark, quiet place; stomach pain; appetite loss; paleness; dehydration. Your child may sleep a lot, or not at all. Attacks usually only last hours however, where flu lasts days.
- Aura: your child may come to you saying that their eyesight is funny, or something “feels strange” before their pain begins. You may have to ask more direct questions to pinpoint the exact symptoms your child is experiencing. Having a list of these symptoms is very helpful for your doctor.
- Infants may seem to have a recurring earache, crying and tugging at the ear, or rubbing the head or eyes. However the pain lasts hours, often seems to go away with a nap, and there will be no abnormal findings when the ears are examined.
Diagnosis is very important in children, because it is the first step toward getting the attacks under control and keeping them there, minimizing the chance that episodic (occasional) migraine will transform to more troublesome, disruptive and difficult to treat chronic migraine. Diagnosis also means you can be prepared for the next attack. Packing a migraine tool bag is a great way to minimize the disturbance a Migraine may have on the child and his/her family.
If the child has migraine, learning about and eliminating triggers will be important. A trigger is something that makes it more likely for a migraine to start. Frequent triggers include food and food additives, weather, illness or injury, change in sleep patterns, fluorescent lighting, crying, caffeine. Almost anything can be a potential trigger in some people, and triggers tend to cumulate over days, so detective work using a notebook may be the best first thing a parent can start with.
New medications have been approved by the FDA for migraine attacks in children of certain age groups. Controlling migraine attacks early is important, so be sure your child’s physician is well versed in migraine and headache disorders and is aware of these new options. If there is a doubt, please seek the help of a board certified headache specialist. There are currently 290 of them throughout the United States, and all they do every day is diagnose and treat these disorders. They stay current on the latest and greatest discoveries and therapies and are the best resource for the care of migraine and headache.
Disclosure: This is a compensated guest post.