A recent study from Reuters Health, confirmed something that I already knew: many adults with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) also have headaches. I have spoken to many parents of older children and teens with GERD and often hear about frequent headaches and even migraines in this group. I offer support and acknowledgement because I have a child with similar symptoms.
The study reported a higher incidence of headaches associated with a variety of gastrointestinal problems including Gastroesophageal Reflux, diarrhea, constipation and nausea. There are many theories about the cause of these symptoms and the connection between headaches and stomach aches. There is much interest in studying the brain and the gut for clues about the underlying cause of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and motility disorders such as Gastroparisis. By understanding the underlying mechanism of headaches and GERD, there is hope that future treatments will precisely target the cause, leading to a better outcome.
First GERD, Then Migraines
I was seriously busy taking care of my youngest daughter Rebecca with a combination of GERD and asthma. Then Jenna decided to challenge me with new worries. While Jenna had GERD from infancy, she didn’t need medication until she was 10 years of age. Out of the blue, she started having painful migraine headaches, dizziness and nausea, especially when she got up in the morning or while driving in the car. The first line of treatment was to reduce the pain using over the counter medications and then stronger pain medications. All of these medications upset her stomach and triggered reflux symptoms. In desperation, several migraine medications were tried with some success. Not one to sit around and wait for a solution to be presented to me, I used my Reflux-mom skills to scour the internet for clues to help us win the battle over migraines and GERD. I stumbled upon a website about Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome or POTS (www.potsplace.org). It was overwhelmed with relief because the symptoms of POTS described Jenna’s symptoms precisely.
Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome or POTS is thought to be caused by a problem with the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has a big job regulating your temperature, breathing and digestion. Symptoms include: headache/migraine, dizziness/lightheadedness, heart palpitations, poor sleep/fatigue and digestive problems such as nausea, fullness and delayed gastric emptying.
It turns out that Jenna has GERD and POTS. In addition, POTS affects the digestive system. Sometimes there is not enough blood flow to the stomach so she feels nauseous. Other times, there is too much blood flow to her stomach and she will get a sudden, sharp pain in her stomach. Then the GERD decides to get into the act and she feels food and acid backwashing.
The story does have a happy ending. The good news is that Jenna’s POTS treatment is very simple. She must stay hydrated by drinking several sports drinks per day and eating salty food such as potato chips. Isn’t that a wonderful treatment plan? The only problem is trying to drink a large quantity of liquid without triggering her GERD. By taking small sips and drinking all day, she can accomplish this very easily. Over time, the frequency of her migraines has decreased from daily/monthly or more to a few per year.
If you or your child has GERD and headaches, consult with your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment plan. In some cases, GERD and migraines/headaches just happen to occur together. Then again, it could be GERD and POTS.