Emily remembers her first bad headache. "It was really scary. The pain was unbelievable and I felt like I was going to throw up," she said. "I had no idea what was happening." The headaches struck once a month, then once a week. They were getting worse and worse. Emily told her mom, who took her to the doctor.
It turned out that Emily had migraines (say: my-graynz). Luckily, the doctor gave Emily some medicine to treat her headaches. The doctor also taught her how to know when a migraine is coming and how to avoid them.
What's a Migraine?
Almost everyone gets headaches. You might have one after bumping your head or during a cold or bout with the flu. Some types of headaches may happen only once in a while, whereas others can happen as often as every day. Most headaches produce a dull pain around the front, top, and sides of your head, almost like someone stretched a rubber band around your noggin.
But a migraine is worse than a regular headache. Migraines usually occur about one to four times a month. The pain is often throbbing and on one or both sides of the head. Kids with migraines often feel dizzy or sick to their stomachs. During the headache, some kids are sensitive to light, noise, or smells, and want to sleep. When they wake up, they usually feel better. Most migraines last from 30 minutes to 6 hours but some can last a day or 2.
If you have migraines, you're not alone. About one out of every 20 kids, or about 8 million children in the United States, gets migraines. Before age 10, an equal number of boys and girls get migraines. But after age 12, during and after puberty, migraines affect girls three times more often than boys.
Migraines aren't contagious, which means you can't catch them from someone who has them.
What Causes a Migraine?
A migraine begins when, for some reason, blood vessels in the brain narrow (constrict) temporarily. When that happens, the amount of blood and oxygen flowing to the brain drops. So the brain sends a message: "Hey guys, we need some more blood and oxygen here!"
That causes other blood vessels to dilate (expand). When those blood vessels expand, they become inflamed, throb, and cause a pounding pain. Because it involves changes in blood vessels, a migraine is a vascular (say: vas-kyuh-lur) headache.
Some scientists believe that people who get migraines have inherited a tendency for their nervous systems to react differently to changes in their bodies or their environment. Certain things may trigger a reaction in the person's nervous system and start a migraine attack.
Some common triggers are:
- menstruation (having a period)
- skipping meals
- too much caffeine (like cola drinks)
- certain foods (cheese, pizza, chocolate, ice cream, fatty or fried food, lunch meats, hot dogs, yogurt, or anything with MSG, a seasoning often used in Asian foods)
- too much or too little sleep
- weather changes
No one is really sure why people get migraines. But chances are, if you get migraines, another member of your family gets them as well. That's because scientists think migraines are genetic, which means that certain genes passed on from parents make a kid more likely to get them.
Do You Know a Migraine Is Coming?
Migraines begin differently. Some kids just don't feel right. Light or sound may bother them or make them feel worse, and they may even get sick to their stomachs and throw up. Before or during a migraine headache, some children may have muscle weakness, lose their sense of coordination, stumble, or even have trouble talking.
About one in five kids gets an aura (say: or-uh), a kind of warning that a migraine is on the way. The most common auras include blurred vision and/or seeing spots, colored balls, jagged lines, or bright lights, or smelling a certain odor. An aura usually starts about 10 to 30 minutes before the start of a migraine headache, although auras can happen the night before the headache starts. An aura usually lasts about 20 minutes.
Treatments for Migraines
Getting a bad migraine once in a while may be annoying, but usually doesn't cause any big problems for a kid. But be sure to tell your mom or dad if you have headaches that:
- last a long time
- seem to be getting worse
- happen more often
- cause problems with balance
- interfere with school or after-school activities
Your doctor will want to know about those problems and can try to help. Your doctor also may want you to keep a headache diary. By keeping track of your headaches, you may be able to figure out what triggers them. Answer all the questions in the diary each time you have a headache. The information will help your doctor figure out the best treatment.
Your doctor may suggest one or more medicines you can take. They could include:
- pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- medicines that reduce nausea and vomiting
- sedatives, which can help you to go to sleep and get rid of the headache
- medicines to prevent migraines or make them less severe
Some doctors may also try to teach you biofeedback. This technique helps you learn to relax and use your brain to gain control over certain body functions. If a migraine begins slowly, many people can use biofeedback to remain calm and stop the attack.
How to Prevent a Migraine
The good news is that many kids outgrow migraines. In the meantime, follow your doctor's instructions and take your medicine as instructed. Make sure you have the medicine on hand in case a migraine starts at school or when you're away from home.
Also try to stay away from your migraine triggers. If certain foods like chocolate or cheese or caffeinated drinks trigger your migraines, it's a good idea to avoid them. Also, take breaks from activities that seem to trigger your migraines, such as using the computer for a long time or listening to loud music.
Fight stress by making a plan so you don't feel freaked out by all the stuff you need to get done. Regular exercise can also reduce stress and make you feel better. The more you understand migraines, the better prepared you can be to fight them before they become a big pain!
Reviewed by: Margaret C. McBride, MD
Date reviewed: December 2007