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Migraine Is Common in Children, but It Is Often Misdiagnosed. Here’s Why.

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Young children and teenagers commonly experience migraine, which presents differently in adults. Unlike adults, children have a more difficult time understanding and describing the severe pain caused by their migraine. As a result, children with migraine often go undiagnosed and untreated. Christina Szperka, MD, Director of the Pediatric Headache Program at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, provides an overview of common symptoms and treatment options for pediatric migraine.

Who experiences pediatric migraine?

Almost 60 percent of children complain of headache at some point, and about 8 percent of children are living with migraine. In younger children, migraine is equally common among boys and girls. However, migraine occurs more frequently in girls than in boys after puberty.

“Migraine is very common in children,” Dr. Szperka said. “We’ve learned that migraine occurs in about single-digit percentages of school-aged kids. It becomes much more common through adolescence, and that migraine can be disabling.”

Children can also be diagnosed with chronic migraine, which Dr. Szperka defines as experiencing headache more than 15 days per month. “The rates are probably around 1.5 to 2 percent, depending on exactly how you define that,” Dr. Szperka said. “If you think about that, two out of every 100 children means that there are lots of teenagers out there who have very frequent headaches.”

Symptoms of pediatric migraine

Migraine symptoms vary between young children and adults. Dr. Szperka explains that some children have a more classic migraine presentation, in which pain is the predominant symptom. Younger children, however, typically have symptoms like vomiting and stomach pain, which are less common in adults. “Sometimes the child will develop severe pain and belly pain or nausea, and then vomit, and then the episode’s over,” Dr. Szperka says.

Children who present these GI symptoms tend to experience shorter migraine episodes than adults do, making them hard to treat. Even though these episodes are brief, they are still extremely painful and disrupt activities.

Additionally, while adults typically have head pain on one side of the head, children often experience pain on both sides, and their headaches are commonly accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound.

Treating pediatric migraine

Parents should find comfort in knowing that migraine is common in children and adolescents, but they should also realize the severity of the pain their child could be experiencing. Seeking a diagnosis and proper treatment will make a world of difference to your child’s migraine journey. Once a general practitioner has ruled out any serious conditions, parents should work with a headache specialist to develop a treatment plan that helps their child live life without migraine.

The American Migraine Foundation has an extensive collection of information related to headache in children and adolescents. Click here to view the pediatric migraine resource library, and use the searchable Find A Doctor database to connect with a specialist near you. For more information on caring for a child with migraine, download a free copy of our guide.


Originally published: August 1, 2018
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