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Migraines in kids

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Headache or migraine?

You get colds, your child gets colds. You get the flu, your child gets the flu. You get headaches, and yes, your child can get headaches, too. Whether from dehydration, stress or an illness, why shouldn't kids get headaches just as adults? Thankfully, you usually can treat simple headaches with simple medications. But sometimes, childhood headaches are a little more intense and warrant a little (or a lot) more scrutiny.

Child with HeadacheWhen my son recently experienced recurrent intense headaches for several days -- headaches that really knocked him down physically and emotionally -- we took a little crash course in possible causes of headaches. For a couple days, the possibility that he had developed migraines was in the mix. The headaches turned out to be due to a virus that resolved, but not before moving on to the parents (ow!). In the process, I developed even more sympathy for what my son experienced and what headache sufferers in general endure.

What is a migraine?

Migraine headaches are chronic, severe headaches that can last many hours or even days. The intense throbbing discomfort can include sensitivity to light and sound, cause nausea and vomiting, and generally make the sufferer pretty miserable. Sometimes, migraines include warning signs such as flashes of light, blindspots or tingling in the arm or leg; this is called an aura. The frequency of migraines varies from person to person, from several times a month to every several months (and every frequency in between).

I (sheepishly) admit to being a little dismissive when my son first started complaining of this headache. He can be dramatic, so after some ibuprofen, plenty of fluids and a check for other symptoms, I first thought he was milking the situation for some extra attention. But then he became pale and nauseated. And when he didn't want to watch his favorite television show and just wanted a dark room -- well, then I knew it was something more.

Get your doctor involved right away

While most headaches in kids are not serious, extremely intense and/or recurrent headaches can be symptoms of other, more insidious conditions. Talking to your pediatrician about what is going on is important. Trust your Mommy instinct on this one; if it doesn't feel right in any way, call your doctor or go to the ER.

Keeping track of the headaches and symptoms will help you and your doctor identify patterns that can help in diagnosis (yet another good reason to keep a family healthcare journal). Because migraine headache attacks have specific phases and, sometimes, triggers, learning to identify their onset can help all of you gain some control over the situation. Though you may not be able to prevent the headaches, you can manage them most efficiently if you know what's happening and what brough it on, giving you a measure of control. Medications are available to treat migraines, but only your doctor can determine its need after diagnosis and after weighing benefits against risks.

Healthful habits may help

Just like in adults, good self-care may help manage migraine headaches in kids:

  • Create a calm space
    In the craziness of family life, a quiet, dim space away from the rest of the family can be hard to find. Have a calm place ready for when headaches happen or when your child just needs somewhere to calm down.
  • Maintain appropriate and regular sleep routines
    Make sure your child gets enough sleep and has a regular bedtime. Check with the National Sleep Foundation for more information on the right amount of sleep for your child.
  • Eat healthful and balanced meals
    Eating at regular times, not skipping meals and including a variety of nutrients are important for everyone in the family. In addition, keeping journals of food intake and headache frequency may help you identify trigger foods.
  • Get regular exercise
    Regular physical activity helps manage stress and is part of a generally healthful lifestyle.
  • Manage stress
    Learn relaxation techniques you can teach to your child. Simplify, and don't overschedule her. Look for ways to help her find balance in her activities.

Whether or not your child's headaches turn out to be migraines, headaches hurt, just as they do in us adults. Sympathy, reassurance, love and care go a long way to helping your child through any headache or illness.

For more tips on keeping your family healthy:

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