The Mighty Logo

Understanding Abdominal Migraine: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Abdominal migraine is a unique and often overlooked condition. It’s important to recognize it among the myriad causes of abdominal pain, mainly because it primarily affects children and can be bewildering for both you and your family.

What Is Abdominal Migraine?

Abdominal migraine is a subtype of migraine that predominantly affects children but can occur at any age. It presents with recurrent bouts of abdominal pain, which are the hallmark of the condition.

In abdominal migraine, intense stomach pain takes center stage rather than the headache characteristic of typical migraine attacks. Those experiencing it may also have other symptoms similar to migraine, including nausea and sensitivity to light or sound. Additionally, abdominal migraine is closely related to cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS), where episodes of severe vomiting occur in a cyclical pattern, often accompanying abdominal pain.

While both conditions involve cyclical symptoms, abdominal migraine’s primary feature is abdominal pain, and it may or may not include cyclic vomiting. This differentiates it from CVS, where vomiting is the predominant symptom, sometimes without significant abdominal pain.

Symptoms of Abdominal Migraine

If you’re dealing with abdominal migraine, here are the key symptoms to watch for:

  • Midline abdominal pain: Often a dull or sore sensation around the belly button.
  • Nausea and vomiting: These can lead to appetite loss and dehydration.
  • Loss of appetite: You might not feel like eating during an attack.
  • Pallor: You may look noticeably pale.
  • Duration: Symptoms typically last between 2 to 72 hours.
  • Other migraine symptoms: You may also have a headache or sensitivity to light and sound.

It’s important to recognize these signs early and consult a health care provider for appropriate care.

Identifying Abdominal Migraine in Children

Understanding abdominal migraine in children is crucial since it can be mistaken for other pediatric issues. If you suspect your child is experiencing abdominal migraine attacks, here’s what to keep an eye on:

  • Sudden belly pain: This isn’t the typical tummy ache. The pain is moderate to severe, centered around the navel or midline, and is enough to affect their daily activities.
  • Cyclic vomiting: Look for patterns in vomiting that seem to recur over weeks or months.
  • Change in appearance: Your child may show signs of paleness or dark circles under their eyes during an attack.
  • Behavioral changes: Your child might withdraw from play, appear lethargic, or seem unusually irritable when a migraine attack strikes.
  • Family history of migraine: If there’s a family history of migraine, your child has a higher risk of abdominal migraine.
  • Sleep relief: Notice if symptoms improve or disappear with rest or sleep.

Causes and Triggers of Abdominal Migraine

The exact cause of migraine is still unknown. However, several triggers have been identified that may precipitate a migraine attack:

  1. Genetic predisposition: There’s evidence to suggest that abdominal migraine may run in families, indicating a genetic component to the condition. It’s not about one single gene; instead, a mosaic of genetic factors may contribute to the susceptibility of developing this form of migraine.
  2. Neurological factors: Abdominal migraine, like other forms of migraine, is believed to be related to changes in the brain’s chemistry and the way nerve pathways and brain regions communicate.
  3. Dietary triggers: Certain foods and additives are known to trigger migraine attacks. These can include chocolate, caffeine, processed meats with nitrates, aged cheeses, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and foods containing tyramine.
  4. Emotional stress: Children, like adults, can experience stress from various sources that may lead to an attack. Stress is a common trigger for all types of migraine.
  5. Changes in sleep patterns: Both too much and too little sleep can serve as a trigger for abdominal migraine attacks.
  6. Physical exertion: Overexertion, mainly if one is not accustomed to intense physical activity, can sometimes trigger a migraine attack.
  7. Environmental factors: Bright lights, strong smells, or loud noises could trigger an abdominal migraine.
  8. Hormonal changes: Hormonal fluctuations may also play a role in abdominal migraine, especially as children approach puberty.
  9. Medications: Some medications can aggravate migraine symptoms, including those of abdominal migraine.

Diagnosing Abdominal Migraine

Arriving at a diagnosis of abdominal migraine can be a meticulous process. It starts with a comprehensive medical history that may reveal a pattern consistent with migraine attacks despite the absence of a headache. You or your child may undergo a detailed examination and recount the episodic nature of symptoms, their duration, and associated features like nausea or light sensitivity.

Doctors often employ diagnostic criteria tailored to abdominal migraine, which typically include a history of at least five attacks of abdominal pain lasting anywhere from two to 72 hours. The pain is often midline, moderate to severe, accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or a pallor.

Exclusion is also a part of diagnosis; thus, health care providers might recommend tests like abdominal ultrasounds, endoscopies, or blood tests to rule out other causes of abdominal pain. These potential conditions must be excluded before confirming a diagnosis of abdominal migraine, as the treatment paths can differ significantly.

This diagnosis is a pivotal step — it not only gives a name to what you or your child has been enduring but also opens the door to targeted treatment strategies that can significantly improve quality of life.

Challenges in Diagnosing

Diagnosing abdominal migraine is challenging due to its symptom overlap with other gastrointestinal disorders, its episodic nature, and the lack of headache, which is a hallmark of more commonly recognized forms of migraine. The reliance on patient or parental reporting of symptoms can also complicate accurate diagnosis. A thorough exclusion of other conditions through various tests is necessary, which can be time-consuming and often leads to uncertainty and stress for those affected.

Management and Treatment Options for Abdominal Migraine

Managing abdominal migraine requires a combination of strategies tailored to the individual, with medications playing a key role in both preventing attacks and treating acute symptoms.

Medications Used in Treating Abdominal Migraine

  • Preventive medications: These are used to decrease the frequency of abdominal migraine attacks. Medications that have been found beneficial include:
    • Antiepileptic drugs like topiramate or valproic acid.
    • Beta-blockers such as propranolol.
    • Calcium channel blockers like verapamil.
    • Tricyclic antidepressants, for example, amitriptyline.
  • Acute treatments: For managing symptoms during an attack, the following might be recommended:
    • Analgesics or NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) like ibuprofen for pain relief.
    • Antiemetics for nausea and vomiting, such as ondansetron.
    • Triptans, commonly used for migraine headaches, can sometimes be effective for abdominal migraine as well.
  • Supplementary treatments: Additional medications that can support the primary treatment include:
    • Antihistamines to help with nausea.
    • Sedatives can be used occasionally if sleep disturbances are a factor.

It’s important to note that not all medications are suitable for everyone, especially for children, and the side effects can vary.

Dietary Adjustments

  • Trigger identification and avoidance: Keeping a detailed food diary to identify and avoid triggers.
  • Regular meals: Encouraging regular, balanced meals to prevent hypoglycemia, which can trigger attacks.
  • Hydration: Ensuring adequate fluid intake.

Lifestyle Modifications

  • Sleep hygiene: Establishing regular sleep patterns, as poor sleep can trigger attacks.
  • Stress reduction: Yoga, meditation, or therapy can be beneficial.
  • Physical activity: Regular exercise may help reduce the frequency of attacks.

Behavioral and Complementary Therapies

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): To help cope with pain and stress.
  • Biofeedback: Training the body to respond differently to the pain and stress of an attack.
  • Relaxation techniques: Guided imagery or progressive muscle relaxation can help with symptom relief.

Home Remedies and Supplements

  • Herbal supplements like peppermint or ginger may alleviate nausea.
  • Riboflavin (vitamin B2) has been shown to be potentially effective in reducing migraine frequency.

When to See a Doctor

If you or your child are experiencing recurrent episodes of abdominal pain that disrupt daily activities, it’s prudent to consult a doctor. Particularly, seek medical attention if:

  • Pain is severe, abrupt, or unlike previous pests.
  • Associated symptoms such as persistent vomiting, fever, diarrhea, or weight loss occur.
  • Abdominal pain doesn’t improve with over-the-counter medications.
  • Pain interferes with the ability to attend school or participate in everyday activities.
  • There’s a family history of abdominal migraine or migraine with typical aura.
  • Symptoms resemble those of abdominal migraine, like nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light alongside the pain.

Prompt consultation can aid in early diagnosis and management, improving quality of life and preventing potential complications.

Future Research and Development

Current research into abdominal migraine is exploring genetic links, neurological connections, and the role of the digestive system to improve treatments.

Studies on diet’s impact and new, targeted medications promise better management options. Holistic treatments are also being evaluated for efficacy. These advances indicate a move toward personalized care for abdominal migraine.

This ongoing research promises to usher in an era of personalized medicine for those dealing with abdominal migraine, with treatments tailored to individual genetic makeups, lifestyle factors, and specific symptom patterns. The commitment to this research signifies a growing recognition of the need for specialized care in pediatric and adult-onset cases of abdominal migraine.

Getty image by towfiqu ahamed

Originally published: November 8, 2023
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home