The most common form of headache is a migraine. There are several different symptoms and these vary from person to person.
Migraines are common in both boys and girls. In fact, one in 10 children under the age of 15 suffers from them.
These headaches, and the symptoms that accompany them, can be frightening in their severity. They can have a huge impact on a child’s home and school life. But the good news is that modern treatment can be very effective.
What causes a headache or migraine?
The tendency to suffer from migraines is inherited. Someone else in a child’s family will suffer from them too.
There can also be triggers. Some migraine sufferers can identify clear triggers. It is possible for them to prevent attacks by avoiding these. But it is rarely so straightforward.
Some people experience dietary triggers where a migraine is initiated by eating a particular food. Dietary triggers are uncommon except for caffeine and alcohol.
Doctors know that migraines are not caused by eye problems, other medical conditions, or having a particular type of personality.
It is much more usual for migraines to be brought on by lifestyle triggers.
These can include stress, fatigue, missed meals, sleeping in and/or any disruption to sleep, and also spending too long on a computer. Unfortunately, these are all factors that are impossible to avoid completely.
For some people, the temperature of food (hot or cold) can trigger migraine. Migraines are common in both boys and girls.
What are the signs and symptoms of a headache or migraine?
For most children, there’s a combination of symptoms that tends to build up to a peak, culminating in a pounding headache. During an attack a child often looks pale, feels sick and may actually be sick, and finds light and sound unbearable.
The symptoms can vary in intensity and frequency. Each attack can also vary in length, lasting anything from four hours to 72 hours. Between attacks, most children are symptom-free and can carry on with and enjoy normal activities.
Some children are clearly able to predict an attack of migraine because they experience certain symptoms beforehand.
Some children might have disturbed (blurred) vision and may also be sensitive to smells. Others may experience an unpleasant taste, bloating, neck pain, and sweating. This cluster of premonitory symptoms is called an ‘aura’. This leads into the first phase of the migraine, called the ‘prodrome’.
For some children, this phase might come up to a day before the headache actually emerges. The symptoms can include cravings for certain foods (often sweets), excitability, hyperactivity, tiredness, yawning and a change of mood.
How is a headache or migraine normally diagnosed?
There is no specific test that can diagnose migraine. But if a child is suffering from headaches it’s a good idea to see a GP. This is important if the headaches are causing a child to miss school and they are interfering with a child’s normal family and social life.
A doctor will be able to make a diagnosis by taking the child’s medical history and ruling out other causes for the attacks.
It will help if you can keep a ‘headache diary’. View a sample headache diary
. You could record when the child suffers from headaches, how long they last, and what any other symptoms are. This will help give the doctor a clear picture of what’s happening.
How is a headache or migraine normally treated?
There is no cure for migraine but there are lots of different treatments available that can help to manage the condition effectively.
During an acute attack, one of the best treatments is sleep. Many children find that lying still in a darkened room, with a quiet environment, helps. If the child finds simple analgesia helps relieve the pain, it’s a good idea for them to take it.
It is possible to prevent migraine. There is preventative medication which is safe and widely used. But it needs to be taken every day and usually takes a few weeks to become effective.
Some children may also benefit from specific medication that works to prevent acute attacks.
What’s going to help?
It is a good idea to keep a child in a routine. Regular meals and bedtimes will help to keep the number of migraines to a minimum.
What happens next?
After puberty, most boys tend to find that migraines naturally become less troublesome. They may return in later life though. However this isn’t the same for girls. Due to hormonal changes, girls tend to suffer from more headaches than boys during the teenage years.