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Aches & Pains: Kids have Migraines Too


Sunday, July 21, 2013, 11:07 AM - Migraine headaches are much more common in young people than most people think. Experts estimate that approximately 10 per cent of migraine sufferers are children under the age of 15. Children, even babies, can experience devastating effects, especially where a family history of migraine exists.

A migraine is not just a bad headache. Migraine is a biological disorder of the central nervous system that is frequently inherited. Although migraine is not life threatening, the symptoms of a migraine attack can profoundly disrupt a sufferer's life, and can place enormous strain on families.

10 per cent of migraine sufferers are children under the age of 15 
While twice as many adult women as men suffer from migraine, boys are more likely than girls to experience attacks in childhood. The good news is that as many as one-third of all children outgrow their migraine.

Enlist your child's help in searching for migraine triggers
Isolating and identifying your child's triggers things that may provoke an attack is an important first step in reducing the number of migraine attacks that are experienced.

Children are more sensitive to food triggers than adults, and are more likely to respond favourably to their elimination. Food triggers include cheese (especially aged cheddar), nuts, chocolate, citrus fruits, seafoods, fatty or fried foods, fast food, and dairy products.

If your child frequently awakens during the night with a migraine, consider low blood sugar as a possible trigger. Regularly spaced meals and a snack before bedtime may help, but be sure to check the possibility of low blood sugar with your doctor as well.

Some children experience attacks when engaging in certain physical activities, like gymnastics, where the head may be positioned lower than the body, or from repetitive swinging on a swing set.

Your child may be sensitive to other triggers including changes in weather, bright light, strong smells, loud noise, strong wind, emotional excitement, and alterations in routine.

What to do during an attack
Your child needs special care during a migraine attack. Keep the child as comfortable as possible in a darkened and quiet room. Apply cooled soft gel packs (or warmed Magic Bags, if preferred) and elevate the head. Bed clothes and sheets should be loose and comfortable. Avoid using strong smelling cleaners, solvents, paint, air fresheners or perfumes in the home during an attack. Do not insist on large meals, but consider offering small, frequent portions of your child's choice. Choose toys for quiet play and discourage reading and watching television.

Tell your child what is happening. If your child is vomiting or urinating frequently, explain that this is part of migraine, and that it will stop. Make your child aware you will be there to help during the attack and when it ends.

Make your child aware you will be there to help during the attack and when it ends.

Your doctor may suggest medication for your child either to help during an attack, or to prevent or reduce the number of attacks. Where tension or pressure at school or home act as triggers, stress management or professional counseling can be effective.

Types of migraine
The most common form of migraine in children is "migraine without aura". Children suffering from these attacks do not experience an "aura", a visual or other sensory disturbance that serves as a warning of an impending migraine attack. Rather, in the early stages of an attack, the child may appear pale, tired and irritable. What follows is a throbbing headache, likely to be accompanied by nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound. Children with this form of migraine may also experience diarrhea with the attack. At this point, the child may retreat to his room, and the attack often resolves after sleep within two to six hours.

Some children experience a "migraine with aura". The aura can be especially distressing for children. Visual disturbances can include temporary "holes" in the visual field, difficulty in focusing, or a frightening display of flashing or jagged coloured lights, spots or lines. Other forms of aura include numbness or tingling in the arms, hands or around the mouth, difficulty in forming or recalling words, and dizziness. The typical migraine, with its associated symptoms, such as headache, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, may follow within an hour after the aura has passed.

For many children with migraine, attacks can involve episodes of abdominal pain with vomiting. This form is called abdominal migraine. Another type called vertebrobasilar or basilar migraine has been wrongly confused with drug overdose in teenagers brought to emergency departments. The symptoms of this migraine variant include dizziness, confusion, slurred speech, double vision, and even loss of consciousness. Children with this form of migraine should wear a Medic Alert bracelet at all times.

Kids Health, Vol. 3 Issue 2, 2002. Reproduced courtesy of The Hospital for Sick Children.

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