A surprising number of children suffer from headaches, with one report indicating that around 70% of school-age children fall victim at least once a year. A quarter of those have recurring headaches, and 10% have migraines.
For parents, seeing a child in pain is often worse than being in pain themselves. Migraine is especially worrying as the symptoms vary widely and the pain can be severe. Knowing how to help a child cope with and recover from the pain helps ease the helplessness and worry that witnessing a child’s pain causes.
Get a Diagnosis
If your child suffers from recurring headaches, the first step is to consult your doctor. It can be tempting to assume it’s just a one-off and won’t happen again, and while statistics indicate it may be a normal headache, there is also the chance that it’s migraine. Migraine headaches are far from routine, and need careful management or lifestyle changes to control them.
Children often don’t understand what’s happening to them, and migraine can be frightening. The experience of an attack can have a huge impact on a child’s wellbeing, as they come to fear headaches or imagine they’re a sign of serious illness. For the whole family’s benefit, it’s important that migraine is diagnosed so everyone understands what’s happening and how best to cope.
Diagnosis also rules out other conditions. Headaches are sometimes blamed on poor eyesight or sinus disease, for example. In extreme cases, teachers may disbelieve the child who complains of headache, thinking they’re using it as an excuse to avoid lessons or activities. Correct diagnosis informs everyone, and the child can be helped accordingly.
Helping Children Through Attacks
Getting a migraine diagnosis in itself can go a long way towards helping children understand and cope with attacks. Here are some other ways parents can help:
Keep an eye on migraine-prone children. You’re likely to recognize changes in their behaviour that may signal an approaching attack. Your child may look paler than normal, or may become irritable, confused or have unusual food cravings. Other things to look for include yawning or feeling unusually tired, or complaining of muscle pain when they’ve done nothing to trigger discomfort. Make sure they’re taking their medications properly to prevent or control pain.
Help children keep a migraine diary. It’s good for children to be involved in managing and understanding their condition. They can learn to predict what will bring on an attack, which preventive actions help them avoid it and what treatments work best. Such understanding can often lessen the severity of episodes along with their frequency.
Let schools know about your child’s migraine, and make sure they understand how to help if an attack happens during school hours. Children may need help to catch up with school work if lessons are missed, and understanding teachers can help to minimise the stress that falling behind can sometimes cause in children or teens.
Migraine triggers are those often small things in life that bring on migraine in some people. Triggers vary from person to person in both adult sufferers and children, so while it’s helpful to read a list of common triggers it’s no substitute for completely understanding your own child’s personal danger points. Common triggers in children include:
Computer Screens: Flickering screens can bring on migraine. Make sure children take frequent breaks when they’re working or playing computer games.
Exercise: We all know exercise is good for kids, but in some children sudden exercise can trigger migraine. If this happens, encourage regular, gentle exercise rather than allowing the child to avoid it completely. Make sure kids have plenty to drink, as dehydration is another trigger.
Foods: Certain foods are common triggers in adults, such as caffeine or chocolate. In children, missing meals or irregular eating habits can trigger migraine. If going for long periods without food is a migraine trigger, providing small, healthy snacks in between regular meals could help stave off attacks. Keep a migraine diary and note down what’s eaten alongside records of migraine episodes.
Everyday Stresses: Children take on more stress than we realize. Peer pressure, exam worries, family concerns or school problems can all build into migraine attacks. If tension and stress seem to trigger migraine, finding ways to cope with stressful situations can help.
Sleep: Too much or too little can both trigger migraine. Have regular bedtimes and get up at the same time too. Weekend lie-ins, while pleasant, can have unwelcome consequences for migraine sufferers.
Helping children to cope with and manage migraine may prevent them becoming life-long sufferers. Research indicates that a quarter of childhood sufferers will outgrow migraine by the time they reach their twenties.
Whether your child outgrows migraine or not, learning how best to manage the condition lays a strong foundation for a healthy future.