Discussing Migraine With Your Child

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional
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Less than a year ago, my then 11-year-old started having Migraines. At the time, I had no idea that children could have Migraines. Yet, according to the Migraine Research Foundation, 10 percent of school-age children have Migraines. Even our local emergency room was not well-versed in childhood Migraines, auras, or precursor symptoms children might have.

It’s important to note any symptoms your child has prior to the Migraine. The visual symptoms generally fall under the term “aura.” In 25 percent of people with Migraine, they will experience a visual disturbance prior to the Migraine, and in up to 20 percent of Migraine attacks, other neurological symptoms can occur prior to the actual head pain. These symptoms are known as Migraine equivalents. When you are dealing with a child, it can be extremely important to find ways to help them quickly communicate the signs that a Migraine is coming on, because the faster they take their abortive medication, the better.

Kids do not always explain things the way adults do. For example, our daughter describes her visual auras as “seeing glitter” or “seeing sparkles.”

Some symptoms children may have prior to a Migraine can be:

  • Mood changes: Our daughter can be grouchier than normal or burst into tears for no reason
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as unexplained nausea or vomiting and abdominal pain. Nausea is frequently part of my daughter’s Migraines
  • Food cravings or loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Withdrawal
  • Sensitivity to light, sound or smells
  • Visual disturbances (like our daughter’s glitter)
  • Sleep walking or night terrors

It can be very helpful to keep a headache journal, where you can note any of these symptoms you see prior to your child’s Migraine. Often you will find a pattern of symptoms that help clue you in to when your child is about to have a Migraine episode. In the beginning stages of dealing with a child that has Migraine, it can be helpful to ask them questions about how they are feeling because they may not associate their mood change with their Migraine.

Some things we ask our daughter include:

  • Do you feel sad or angry? Did something happen to make you feel that way or did it just start out of nowhere?
  • Does your tummy hurt? Do you feel like you might throw up?
  • What makes you feel worse? Loud noises? Light?
  • Any other things bothering you or new pain?
  • How much does your head hurt?

When asking about Migraine pain, a pain scale is an essential tool in determining how a child is really feeling. One of the best for little children involves the sad to happy face image. For older children using numbers, with one being little to no pain and 10 being the worst pain imaginable, can be very useful. For example, when my husband asked our daughter with migraine if she was OK she answered, “I’m fine.” When I asked her to give me a number on the pain scale she said, “About a three.” This provided me with better information to properly treat her pain.

Pay attention to any new symptoms. We found that our daughter would develop pain and swelling, with limited function, in her left arm. This was in the absence of any injury. Over time, we saw a pattern: The arm problem came on prior to her Migraines. Now we can tell when she is about to get a Migraine because she will complain about her arm hurting an hour or so before the headache starts. Again, be sure your child knows to tell you as soon as they experience these precursor symptoms so they can take the abortive medication as directed by the neurologist. If your child has unexplained symptoms, be sure to discuss them with your child’s neurologist.

Proper communication with your child, figuring out your child’s warning signs, when a Migraine is imminent, and quick treatment can best manage and limit the pain of Migraine.

See more helpful articles:

Preventive, Abortive, and Rescue Medications - What's the Difference?

Teaching Others About Migraine - A Letter to Use

How Is Migraine Diagnosed?

Understanding the Anatomy of a Migraine