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Migraine: More Than “Just a Headache”

Jan 30, 2024
migraine vs headache

Migraines are one of the leading causes of disability and missed school in children. So when is your child’s head pain more than just a headache? And when should you see your pediatrician?

What Is a Migraine?

A migraine is a neurological disease that affects the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS controls things like our balance, vision and hearing. Migraine symptoms can include the following:

  • Moderate to severe headache
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Sensitivity to touch, sound, light and/or odor
  • Abdominal pain
  • Mood changes

Auras (vision or other sensory changes) sometimes take place before or during a migraine, and symptoms are temporary. Children may experience:

  • Tingling, weakness or numbness in the arms or legs
  • Smelling strange odors
  • Speech problems
  • Flashing lights, colors, jagged lines or loss of vision in one eye

A migraine can last a few hours or a few days.

Who Gets Migraines?

About 10% of school-age children experience migraines. Before puberty, boys experience them more often than girls. As adolescence approaches, girls experience migraines more than boys. This is thought to be due to hormonal changes in girls, which can trigger a migraine.

The cause of migraines is not known, but genetics and environmental factors have been shown to play a part. Children are more likely to inherit the condition if they have a parent who has migraines.  

Stress and being overly tired are the two most common triggers of migraines in children. Certain food and drink, including chocolate, cheese, nuts, shellfish, sugar and caffeine, are also triggers.

Preventing Migraines

The following can decrease migraine suffering – even more than medicine.

  • Keep a regular routine (school, meals and activities).
  • Get enough sleep. Teenagers require eight hours of continuous sleep. Younger children need even more. Children six and up should not nap, as too much sleep can also cause a headache.
  • Serve well-balanced meals and snacks at regular times. Don’t let your child skip meals. And breakfast is still the most important meal of the day.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Children need at least 64 ounces per day.
  • Exercise at least three times per week. Exercise improves brain function and has been shown to decrease migraines.

Some research indicates that migraine sufferers have a magnesium or serotonin deficiency. Speak with your doctor to see if a supplement is recommended for your child.    

Treating a Migraine

There are several things you can do at home to treat your child’s migraine.

  • Give your child ibuprofen every six hours. Taking more than two doses in a week for a few months may lead to more headaches. See your doctor if your child needs medicine this often. Do not give your child aspirin unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
  • Have your child lie down or sleep until the headache is gone.
  • Apply a cool or warm compress to your child’s forehead.

When Should My Child See a Doctor?

Children who have frequent headaches or migraines despite a healthy lifestyle and regular routine should see their pediatrician.

To learn more about the Headache Clinic at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, click here.

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Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Ann Pakalnis, MD

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.