We've talked about migraines in children in the past, mostly on our personal Facebook page. Today, I want to dive a little deeper and share some of the research I've been doing as well as our personal experience with Sapphire's migraines. If you're new here, Sapphire is our 10 year old. :) Sign up here to get weekly updates on our family.
Migraines in Children: Triggers and Treatments
If you've ever experienced a migraine, you know it is a pain like no other. Contrary to what some might think, it isn’t just a headache. Migraines often come with a large range other symptoms that vary in degree from being unpleasant to crippling. As an adult, it can be extremely difficult to function. As a child, it can be nearly impossible. As a parent to a child who suffers from migraines almost constantly, it's exhausting. Sometimes, you feel like you're losing your mind.
Migraines are fairly common, and they have a significant impact on those who suffer from them. It's estimated that 1 in 7 Americans suffer from migraines, but migraine specialists say it's more like 3 out of 7 because many go undiagnosed. Generally speaking, they affect adults. This can lead to a poor quality of life during (and even after) each migraine. With our 10 year old daughter, Sapphire, migraines and vertigo have caused her to have major anxiety. She fears when the next one will happen, she fears the treatments (this girl has had more IVs than most adults), and she fears they'll never go away. Migraines can even get so bad that you're unable to carry out your usual daily activities, such as getting out of bed, taking a bath, and even going to school or work. Sapphire has missed weeks of school at a time before because she was unable to get out of bed due to prolonged migraines.
When Sapphire's migraines first started, she was probably 4 or 5 years old. We had no idea what they were or what caused them. After tons of allergy testing, different medications over the years, etc, she was diagnosed with pseudotumor cerebri or IIH at age 7 after a week long hospital stay. This year, the migraines got worse and more frequent, and she started experiencing horrible vertigo as well. The medications seem to do more harm than good, with side effects like slurred speech and forgetting simple words among other things.
Knowledge is power when it comes to diagnosing and treating medical conditions. Knowing the symptoms and causes of migraines can help get you on the path to effective pain relief so you can lead as normal a life as possible. While migraines aren't technically curable, they are preventable, for the most part.
How can you tell if you or your child are suffering from migraines? Especially in children, migraines don't always manifest the way we expect them to. They can start with a stomach ache, and can progress to vision problems, hearing loss, nausea, vomiting, and intolerance to light and noise.
When Saff has migraines, she also experiences vertigo so it's tough to tell which one is causing which issues, but her biggest complaints are always blurry vision (or completely blacked out vision when it gets bad), ringing in the ears, and nausea. Head pain is a given, but sometimes others experience neck pain instead – or in addition to – head pain.
Phases of a Migraine
The 5 phases of a migraine are:
4. Headache Termination
Many migraine sufferers experience warning signs before their migraines begin. Sapphire will have huge changes in her mood and becomes extremely irritable and even irrational. Sometimes she will say it “smells funny” when there's no odd smells around. Many times you may experience tiredness and tension in your neck and back muscles. This can often lead doctors to believe you might have a tension headache rather than a migraine.
Sapphire experiences auras almost every time she has a migraine. Some people never experience auras, so if your migraine is coming on and you aren't having these symptoms, don't dismiss the rest of them. An aura is like a halo or bright light appearing in your field of vision when you have a migraine. Sapphire describes it as “spotty”; these are blind spots called scotomas. Sometimes she will lose her vision completely. That's usually when the panic attacks kick in.
When the migraine arrives, it's usually in the front of her head or all over. Rarely has it ever been to one side or the other. She says it's like someone is stabbing her skull with a knife. Sometimes, migraine sufferers will have a throbbing pain. It can be difficult for kids to tell you exactly what “kind” of pain it is, because it just hurts. Be patient when trying to help them through their migraines. Stress is one of the biggest migraine triggers and unhappy mom means stressed out kiddo.
Extreme sensitivity to light, photophobia, can also occur. Experts say a migraine can last anywhere from 4 to 72 hours, but Sapphire has had migraines last for a week or more. She will literally be in bed for the entire week – whether it's our bed or a hospital bed – and nothing helps. After the migraine finally sees itself out, the last phase takes place. It's called postdrome.
Postdrome is baiscally the aftermath of the migraine. Loss of appetite is one that many report, but as soon as Sapphire's migraines are gone, she's starving and will eat everything in sight. Problems with concentration and extreme tiredness are symptoms that many experience after the migraine.
Chronic migraines are defined as having migraine symptoms around half the time. So, if you have migraines a few times a week, you're probably a chronic migraine sufferer. This can cause severe disability, diminished quality of life, poor productivity and lost income. According to the ‘experts', about 3% of the population in the US suffers from chronic migraine.
Chronic migraines are a disability. Applying for Social Security Disability can be a long, grueling process. If you suffer from chronic migraines and have a diminished quality of life because of it, consider starting the process now rather than later. Gather your medical documents, schedule any appointments needed to follow up, and start the process of applying.
No one is sure exactly why migraines occur, but they are thought to be triggered by abnormal brain activity or stimulation in one of the main nerves in the brain. Migraines might also have a genetic component. Those with family who have a history of migraines tend to be more prone to them. A pediatric neurologist looked at us during our last hospital stay and actually said, “it's genetics and gender, that's all there is to it”. That isn't completely true, though females are more likely to experience migraines.
Environment can be another key factor for migraines. Artificial sweeteners, flavor enhancers like monosodium glutamate, and red dye are all triggers for Sapphire.
There are many things that can cause migraines, and each person will have different triggers. Triggers can change over the months or years as well. Learning your triggers is the key to preventing and treating migraines. Prevention is 90% of the battle, because after a migraine starts there isn't a whole lot you can do.
Common migraine triggers include:
Chocolate, cheese, and salty foods are known migraine triggers. However, a high-sodium diet is one thing that has helped minimize Sapphire's migraines. Using the free printable migraine tracker below will help you identify and track your food triggers.
If you're a migraine sufferer, avoid processed foods as much as possible. Any foods that contain artificial sugars, colors, and preservatives are likely to cause migraines. MSG (common in Asian restaurants) is another possible trigger. Like I said above, Sapphire is sensitive to many foods – especially dyes and artificial sugars.
Coffee, tea, and energy drinks have been linked to migraines. For a while, caffeine would keep my migraines away, but only temporarily. I would drink a coffee and it would “cure” my migraine for the moment. A few hours later, I'd need more caffeine to keep the migraine away. I gave caffeine up completely a few months ago, and have only had two migraines since then. I was having migraines 3-4 times a week. Giving up caffeine is tough. The withdrawals are awful, but the long term effects are what you have to keep in mind.
Stress causes Sapphire's migraines quite often. If there's a lot going on at school or if she's fighting with her sisters, sometimes she will just stop and break down … and then comes the migraine. It's tough to avoid stress but learning breathing and meditation techniques can help.
Bright lights and Loud noises
Bright lights and loud noises are common triggers for our migraines. The sun is the brightest light, and it triggers them as well (yay, Arizona!).
Perfumes and colognes, nail polish, nail polish remover, paint, gasoline, and cigarette smoke all cause instant migraines for Sapphire. Knowing your triggers can help you avoid these things.
If you've ever had so much as a headache, I'm sure a doctor has blamed it on hormones, so I won't go into detail about hormones here. Quite frankly, while I know hormones can be a trigger, I'm sick of migraines being blamed on gender and hormones in general. There is more to migraines than those things!
There is no cure for migraines, but you can prevent and treat them.
Keep a migraine diary.
A migraine diary can help you keep track of your headaches to determine how often they are occurring and what might have triggered them. Any pattern spotted can help prevent a migraine from happening in the first place. It can also track what works and what doesn't work when it comes to treating them.
DOWNLOAD NOW: Free Printable Migraine Tracker
Our #1 recommended natural treatment for migraines is chiropractic care. We have been working with Dr. Bos for a while now… maybe 2 or 3 years… and at times when nothing else helps, getting adjusted does. Unfortunately for us, it's not a miracle cure like it is for many. It's worth a shot, and worth the small expense. Small expense? Yes, our chiropractor does not require x-rays, which saved us about $500… and he only charges $25 for adjusting the kids. That's something everyone can afford (and if we couldn't afford it, we'd figure out a way to come up with the money because it's that important to us).
Acupressure, acupuncture, aromatherapy (we use this diffuser; the low lights are a good distraction), massage therapy, meditation, and ice packs (Sapphire uses this ice cap almost daily) are all known to help with migraines … at times. Sometimes, one will help. Other times, it won't help at all and you'll have to try something else. It's all trial and error, and unfortunately it's constantly changing (at least in our situation with Sapphire), so a treatment that has worked for a year might stop working all of the sudden.
We have not tried acupressure or acupuncture yet. We have tried the other treatments and they do help at times. Essential oils with aromatherapy are hit or miss because sometimes smells can cause the migraines so we only try that once in a while, moreso in the preventative stage and as a stress reliever.
Many of these treatments can be used in combination with one another, such as meditation, massage using aromatherapy oils, stress management techniques and a better diet. The best approach is to start by choosing one and noting your results in your migraine diary. If it works, then add another treatment to your daily routine and see what kind of results you get.
Disclaimer: Slap Dash Mom is not responsible or liable for any injury sustained as a result of using any information presented and/or discussed here.
We use CBD oil: 1000mg strength (as recommended by the medical marijuana doctor we are working with), 3 drops twice a day. Another “natural” treatment for Sapphire, odd as it may sound, is distraction. She gets migraines so often that this actually helps. If they were only showing up once in a while, I don't know that they would. She is not allowed on electronics (computer, Kindle, cell phone, etc), except in very rare situations. When she feels a migraine coming on we will turn the TV on or let her play a game on the cell phone to distract her from the pain. Sometimes it helps for the time being, sometimes it goes away completely, and sometimes it's like “meh” and she only plays for a few minutes before getting off of it.
Our Next Steps
Migraines are tough, there's no way around it. Getting ahead of the migraine and preventing it is the best thing you can do – for yourself and for your child. Treating migraines after the fact is extremely difficult and frustrating. Even with a diagnosis of Pseudotumor, there's no cure or treatment we've tried that works better than another, outside of those listed above. Tracking Sapphire's migraines and avoiding triggers (especially food and stress triggers) has helped improve her quality of life enough to where she's not in the hospital constantly. We are still searching for answers as she's miserable at least half of the time, but we are closer than we were a few years ago. Our next step is to apply for a medical marijuana card as well as a caregiver card for myself. It's an expensive and somewhat lengthy process in Arizona when kids are involved, but we will be documenting it every step of the way.