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Migraine in children and teens: managing the pain


By the time Mira Halker started high school, hardly a day passed that she wasn’t either getting a migraine attack or recovering from one. She missed volleyball team practice. She missed classes. She missed social events. And few people understood. After all, she looked healthy.

“A lot of times, people think I’m faking it,” said Mira, now 16, who lives in Phoenix. Friends called her flaky; her volleyball coaches questioned her dedication to the team. “I’m like, ‘I’m not trying to get out of this. This is not what this is about,’ ” she said.

Her mother, Rashmi B. Halker Singh, MD, is a neurologist at Mayo Clinic who happens to specialize in migraine. Even so, finding a solution was not easy. Neither ibuprofen nor triptans, nor various preventive measures such as a daily prescription for topiramate controlled the pain and associated symptoms. Mira was barely making it through her school day and had to quit volleyball. Then, in the spring of 10th grade, Mira told her mother that she couldn’t go to prom because the loud noises and lights could give her a migraine attack.

Mother and daughter decided it was time to get even more aggressive. “There are these key moments in life that you can’t get back,” Dr. Singh said. “Migraine steals so much from you.”


One of the challenges Mira’s physicians faced was deciding which medications and other therapies to prescribe to a teenager. Drug companies have been releasing a steady stream of new treatments for migraine headaches, and researchers promise more are on the way soon. Here’s what works for children, what hasn’t yet been approved for use with minors, and how to diagnose migraines in the first place, from experts at some of the nation’s leading pediatric headache centers.

Migraine affects about 10% of children, according to the American Migraine Foundation. The headaches can strike children as early as age 3 or 4 years, said Robert Little, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

Before puberty, boys report more migraine attacks than girls, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But that reverses in adolescence: By age 17, as many as 8% of boys and 23% of girls have had migraine. To diagnose migraine, Juliana H. VanderPluym, MD, associate professor of neurology at Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, said she uses the criteria published in the latest edition of the International Classification of Headache Disorders (ICHD): A patient must have had at least five attacks in their life; and in children and adolescents, the attacks must last no less than 2 hours.

In addition, the headaches should exhibit at least two out of four features:

1. Occur more on one side of the head than the other (although Dr. VanderPluym said in children and adolescents headaches often are bilateral).

2. Be of moderate to severe intensity.

3. Have a pounding or throbbing quality.

4. Grow worse with activity or cause an avoidance of activity.

If the attacks meet those criteria, clinicians should check to see if they meet at least one out of the two following:

1. Are sensitive to light and sounds.

2. Are associated with nausea and/or vomiting.

A clinician should consider whether the headaches are not better accounted for by another diagnosis, according to the ICHD criteria. But, Dr. VanderPluym warned that does not necessarily mean running a slew of tests.

“In the absence of red flag features, it is more than likely going to be migraine headache,” she said. That’s especially true if a child has a family history of migraine, as the condition is often passed down from parent to child.

Ultimately, the diagnosis is fairly simple and can be made in a minute or less, said Jack Gladstein, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Maryland whose research focuses on the clinical care of children and adolescents with headache.

“Migraine is acute,” Dr. Gladstein said. “It’s really bad. And it’s recurrent.”


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