Headache? Migraines? If you get them, your kids might too


Dr. Joe Elser, Pediatrician and Pediatrician Headache Management Specialist at Children’s Hospital of Arkansas (ACH), said: “The reason people have headaches is that there is a headache gene. Just as there is an asthma gene, a cancer gene, a diabetes gene, there is a headache gene. [For] everyone I’ve seen for headaches, I can promise you, there’s a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle—someone [in the family] with headaches.

Elser, himself a migraine sufferer, has studied the causes and treatments of headaches and migraines for more than three decades. Since 1987, when the Neurology Headache Clinic at ACH was founded, Elser and ACH specialists have treated thousands of young patients seeking relief. Eye problems, allergies or stress are often blamed for causing headaches when the headache gene is the real culprit. In addition to misunderstanding the causes of headaches, another common misconception is that children cannot have headaches or migraines.

“If the family history is there and the kids start complaining of headaches, take it seriously,” Elser said. “They’re not trying to get out of school. They don’t try to get things out.

While it’s important to take a child’s headache seriously, Elser also said she’s not worried about headaches or migraines being symptoms of other serious conditions. Parents of children with frequent or severe headaches often fear the worst, but a brief interview with the child about their symptoms is usually enough to diagnose a migraine and begin a treatment plan. Pediatricians at the Headache Clinic help families avoid expensive brain scans when possible.

The study of migraines is difficult even with adult patients. A simple blood sample can identify diabetes and many other conditions, but no test exists for migraines. Identifying when children have migraines or headaches severe enough to require treatment is difficult because young children have difficulty putting their pain into words. Children with recurring headaches may not realize that their pain is abnormal. Migraines in young people become more common in early adolescence, around 10-13 years old, but the youngest patient Elser treated for migraines was nine months old.

Is it a headache or is it a migraine?

Health professionals use these indicators:

If a headache is

  • moderate to severe,
  • lasts 4 to 72 hours,
  • is accompanied by nausea or vomiting,
  • or includes sensitivity to light and sound,

then it’s a migraine.

Even if a headache does not meet these criteria, it can still affect a child’s quality of life.

Relief treatment

“It’s so exciting to see the progress in headache treatment,” Elser said. “Not just medication, but biofeedback, stress management, there are many ways to get things under control.”

The headache gene can make people more vulnerable to triggers like caffeine, chocolate, or stress, which is why our team at ACH recommends a variety of pain relief strategies, including:

  • Eat healthy
  • Sleep well
  • To exercise
  • Stay hydrated
  • Use of a variety of stress reduction techniques

In other words, our headache experts are trying to keep kids enjoying chocolate without triggering a migraine rather than giving up chocolate altogether. Talking with your child helps our specialists find strategies tailored to the child’s unique situation and needs.

For times when immediate relief is needed, Elser said it’s best to find a dark, cool, quiet room and try to rest. “For a real migraine, the body’s way of repairing itself is to fall asleep.”

One of our goals at Arkansas Children’s is to give kids more time to be kids, which includes treating headaches and migraines with the same level of care we would for a broken bone or congenital disability. Elser said if a child has more than one or two headaches a week, or if they have headaches so bad they miss out on activities they enjoy, it’s worth visiting the clinic. ACH headaches.


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