The Difference Between Your Child's Head Pain and a Migraine Attack

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional
Medically Reviewed

So many of us have experienced head pain at some point in our lives — even as children. Pediatric head pain can be caused by a number of things, including sinus issues or infection, flu, or even bumping the head. Most of the time, this pain is dull and located on the front or side of the head, and it tends to resolve over time and with proper treatment for the underlying cause.

But what if your child’s head pain doesn’t go away or reoccurs frequently? It may be time to talk with your pediatrician about migraine.

Migraine is a neurological disease that often presents with head pain that is more severe than a normal headache. Over 37 million Americans deal with the condition. While migraine disease most frequently occurs in adults ages 35 to 55, children can also get migraine and are even more likely to if a parent also has the condition. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, as many as 10 percent of school-age children have migraine.

How do migraine symptoms differ from normal headaches?

If your child has a migraine attack, they most likely have severe throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head, with additional symptoms including sensitivity to smells, light, and sound, as well as nausea or vomiting. Many children will cry because of how severe the pain can be.

Why do children get migraine attacks?

While we don’t know exactly why people get migraine attacks, we do know that more than 70 percent of people who have migraine disease also have a family history of them, and they are more common in Caucasians. If you or someone else in your family has migraine, your child may be more likely to face it as well. We have several family members who deal with migraine disease, and my daughter, who was diagnosed with migraine at age 11, is also now facing the battle.

Neurologists also think that changes in the way the brain stem reacts with the trigeminal nerve, imbalances in brain chemicals (including serotonin), and other environmental factors may play a role. Before puberty, boys tend to get more migraine attacks than girls, but after puberty, it switches to being more common in girls and women. This may also be due to changes in hormones like estrogen, which can be a trigger for migraine attacks.

Can children outgrow migraine?

The good news is that many children who have migraine attacks may actually go on to outgrow them completely. The exact proportion is unknown, but estimates place the number at around 50 percent. A study published in Neurology in 2006 found that 38 percent outgrow them, and an additional 20 percent continue to have headaches, but they are usually a less-severe type of headache known as a tension-type headache. But, for those with parents or siblings dealing with migraine, only 30 percent went on to outgrow them. Unfortunately, the study was a small population, and more information is definitely needed on the subject at hand.

When I asked my child’s physician about whether she would outgrow her migraine attacks, he said that, because I have migraine myself, hers will most likely follow the pattern that mine did — which for me meant that they got worse after puberty.

No matter the cause or the length of time a child has to deal with migraine, it is important to talk with his or her physician as soon as you suspect the condition. There are many medications that can help to prevent migraine attacks from occurring and treat them effectively should an attack occur.

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