Headache? migraine? If you get them, so can your kids

Headache?  migraine?  If you get them, so can your kids

dr. Joe Elser, a pediatrician and pediatric headache treatment specialist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH), said, “The reason people have headaches is because there’s a headache gene. Just like there’s an asthma gene, a cancer gene, a diabetes gene, there is a headache gene. [For] anyone I’ve ever seen for a headache, I can promise you, there’s a parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle – someone [in the family] with a headache.”

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

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


While it’s important to take a child’s headache complaint seriously, Elser also said he shouldn’t worry that headaches or migraines are 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 migraines and initiate a treatment plan. Pediatricians at the headache clinic help families avoid expensive brain scans whenever possible.

Studying migraines is difficult even in adult patients. A simple blood sample can identify diabetes and many other conditions, but there is no test for migraines. It is difficult to determine when children have migraines or headaches that are severe enough to require treatment because young children find it difficult to put their pain into words. Children with recurring headaches may not realize that their pain is abnormal. Migraines in young people are more common in early adolescence, about 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 in intensity,
  • lasts 4-72 hours,
  • accompanied by nausea or vomiting,
  • or includes sensitivity to light and sound,

then it’s migraines.

Even if a headache doesn’t meet those criteria, it can still hinder the child’s quality of life.

Treatment for relief

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

The headache gene can make people more vulnerable to triggers like caffeine, chocolate, or stress, so our team at ACH recommends several pain-relieving strategies, including:

  • Healthy food
  • Sleep well
  • To practice
  • Staying Hydrated
  • Using different stress-reducing techniques

In other words, our headache experts are trying to make it possible for children to still enjoy chocolate without triggering a migraine, rather than giving up chocolate completely. By talking to your child, our specialists can find strategies that fit the child’s unique situation and needs.

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

One of our goals at Arkansas Children’s is to give children more time to be children, including treating headaches and migraines with the same level of care as a broken bone or congenital disability. Elser said that if a child experiences more than one or two headaches a week or has a headache so severe that they miss activities they enjoy, it is worth visiting the ACH Headache Clinic.


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