Healthbeat Report: Migraines in children

July 23, 2009 Headache, stomachache or frequent complaints of sensitivity to light and sound. Doctors say it's very likely the sudden, intense pain in your child's head is not his or her imagination.

Ariel Clark, 17, was ready to take on the world.

The active high school student was having a great junior year practicing her music, doing art and playing basketball when devastating headaches started to hit.

"I got kinda scared, like what's going on," said Ariel Clark.

Ariel says the pain was excruciating and there were other symptoms. She was nauseous, dizzy and tired and then Ariel noticed a tingling sensation on her left side.

"I thought she was having a stroke so if rushed her to the emergency room. They kept her for three days. The doctor described it as a migraine," said Aundra Scott, mother.

It was a diagnosis they never expected. But experts say migraines in children are more common than most of us think.

"There's very good epidemiological evidence. This is under diagnosed," said Dr. Leon Epstein, pediatric neurologist, Children's Memorial Hospital.

The head of neurology at Children's Memorial Hospital says children of any age can have migraines.

It's estimated these debilitating headaches may be plaguing 10 percent of young children and even more teenagers. Research shows if one parent has migraines his or her children have a 50 percent chance of also having them. If both parents have migraines their children have a 75 percent chance of inheriting the condition.

"Migraine is both a genetic and environmental condition," Dr. Epstein.

The exact causes are unknown but triggers include stress, anxiety, depression or a change in routine such as lack of sleep.

Are video games or texting to blame? Some doctors believe their intense use is linked to increased headaches, partly because youngsters may be staying up late playing on these devices instead of sleeping.

Also, even at a young age a stressful schedule can have an impact.

"We know migraines tend to get better in the summer and worse in the fall. Why is that… because the school year is stressful," said Dr. Esptein.

Experts urge parents to take note if their child complains of more than one or two headaches a month or headaches with nausea.

"A child that's in the nurse's office a lot of the time is a red flag because there are things that are bothering them. Kids that have a lot of bellyaches…that can be migraine," said Dr. Nate Bennett, headache specialist.

For some children, migraines are severe enough they need preventative medication. But Dr. Epstein estimates 80 percent of his patients can avoid the headaches with conservative steps such as a better sleep routine and managing stress. That's the route Ariel is going to try first.

"When you have a headache don't take it as a normal thing. Make sure you pay attention to how often it comes and what it's doing to you and letting people know," said Ariel.

The bottom line is every child's headache may be for a different reason and the key is to diagnosis it correctly. That may include keeping an activity and food diary to help spot possible triggers.

Doctors stress it's crucial to catch children's migraines early because left untreated, they may increase in severity and duration.

Leon G. Epstein, MD
Children's Memorial Hospital
Pediatric Neurologist

Division Head, Neurology; Derry A. and Donald L. Shoemaker Professor of Pediatric Neurology; Associate Chair for Research, Department of Pediatrics, Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine; Professor of Pediatrics and Neurology, Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
2515 N. Clark Street and, 467 W. Deming Place
Chicago, IL 60614-3393

Does your child have a headache? Call the doctor if the headache is severe enough to include:

Waking in the night.
vomiting without nausea.
Personality changes.
Fever, stiff neck.

More migraine tips:

How can I prevent my child's headaches?
Make sure your child:
Drinks four to eight glasses of water or other noncaffeinated fluids per day.
Gets plenty of sleep at night, but not too much sleep. Most need eight to 10 hours.
Eats balanced meals at regular hours.
Do not skip meals.
Avoids foods that seem to trigger headaches.
Every kid is different, but common triggers include chocolate, aged cheeses and packaged lunch meat.
Is it a migraine?
Common migraine symptoms include:
Nausea and vomiting.
Sensitivity to light and noise.
Seeing an aura.
Source: Denver Children's Hospital headache clinic

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