According to the National Headache Foundation, 10.3 million children ages 5 to 17 suffer from chronic headaches. Of these, 5 percent are afflicted by migraines.
Judith Turner's son, Scott, has endured severe headaches since he was 4 years old. "He doesn't want to move and is very disturbed by light or noise," says Turner, a mom from Sandy, Utah. "They last perhaps a few hours, but he often falls asleep as they subside. He usually vomits one time, feels better and goes to sleep. He wakes up feeling perfectly fine and usually hungry. The headaches occur about three or four times a year."
This pattern is typical of many children suffering from migraine headaches. "A migraine is typically a one-sided (although in children it may involve both sides of the head) throbbing pain which may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and movement," says Suzanne Simons, executive director of The National Headache Foundation in Chicago, Ill. "It can last from several hours to several days."
Migraines can also produce visual disturbances as well, according to Dr. Leon Zacharowicz, a pediatric neurologist from the Nassau University Medical Center in New York. "A classic migraine is often associated with disturbances such as flickering lights and objects ... [H]owever, more than 70 percent of migraines are the common type, without the aura."
Easing the Pain
As a parent, your immediate concern when a migraine hits is helping your child feel better. Children's headache medicines, such as ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Junior Tylenol), are usually the first treatment of choice, combined with dark rooms, rest and quiet.
"I think the best thing I did was ask [my son] what would make him feel better and then tried my best to do it," says Kim Hoelzli of Thamesford, Ontario, Canada. "I tried cool cloths on his forehead and rocking him, but none of it seemed to work as well as his system of lying flat, vomiting and then sleeping. I think they are over quicker when we do it his way."
"Be sympathetic to these children because they are in agony," says parent Liza Janco, of Fishers, Ind. "If you have other children in the house, it's especially important for them to understand they should try to be quiet and respectful until the headache sufferer has had a chance to heal."
Watching for Triggers
It is unfortunate, but there is no magical cure for migraine headaches. "I promote an ounce of prevention as opposed to the quick fix mentality," Dr. Zacharowicz says. "Parents need to become detectives to find out what triggers the migraine."
While most migraines are hereditary (meaning that a child who suffers from migraines usually has a parent or grandparent or another close relative who also had migraines), there are key factors that can bring on the headache. Common triggers are hunger, lack of adequate sleep, caffeine (found in chocolate bars and soft drinks), nitrites (preservatives in hot dogs and some processed meats) and MSG (a flavoring in some packaged food products).
Once the contributing factors are identified, you can adjust your child's habits to avoid the common triggers, Dr. Zacharowicz says. He speaks from medical and personal experience, having lived with migraines himself since he was a child.
Keeping Tabs on Migraines
But how do you decipher exactly which triggers are responsible for your child's migraines? "A diary is an excellent tool for parents of children with frequent migraines," Turner says. "Sometimes attention to diet, rest and other factors can significantly reduce the occurrence."
Recording the details of when the headaches occurred, how long they lasted, what was eaten that day, what was the activity that day, how much sleep the night before, etc., may seem trivial, but memory alone can fail us, Simons says. "You might not make the connection between the headaches every Wednesday, which is also hot dog day at the school cafeteria, until you see the pattern emerging on paper," she says.
The diary is only one step. It is also vital to develop a dialogue with your family doctor or pediatrician about recurring headaches. Don't wait to bring it up during some future appointment. Make a specific visit to discuss the migraines. Your doctor may wish to refer your child to a pediatric neurologist in order to exclude any other illnesses that can mimic migraines.
"If the headaches worsen over time, are associated with weakness and numbness or worsen upon awakening, these are factors which may indicate the problem is more serious than a migraine," Dr. Zacharowicz says. "A neurologist may also prescribe medication (such as Propanolol) to help prevent frequent and severe migraines."