Migraine is the most common cause of disabling headache, affecting 35 million Americans. While often thought to be a condition of adults, migraine is common in children, affecting 3 percent of preschool-aged children, 4 to 11 percent of elementary school-aged children, and 8 to 23 percent of high schoolers.

Before puberty, migraine is more common in boys, while after puberty it is more common in girls. Migraine often becomes more troublesome at the onset of puberty or even a bit before the outward signs of puberty are apparent. In girls, menstrual periods can be a potent migraine trigger, particularly for the first several years of cycling.

Migraine is most often hereditary. If you have migraine, it is likely that another family member suffers from it too. However, the severity and frequency of migraine attacks can differ dramatically between family members. One family member may experience very rare migraine attacks, such as just after consuming alcohol (a "hangover headache") or with menstrual cycles, while another may have very difficult daily, debilitating migraine.

Migraine attacks are characterized by recurrent episodes of head pain that may be throbbing or pounding. The headache is accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound, as well as sensitivity to head movement. Migraine can occur at any time of day or night. In children, migraine attacks can be as short as one hour and often involve both sides of the head.

Young children may experience a form of migraine that expresses itself as regular episodes of vomiting or abdominal pain without any other sign of illness; later in childhood, the migraine headache attacks become apparent.

Signs and symptoms of migraine include:

  • Throbbing or pounding pain, often on one side of the head
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Worsening of pain with movement
  • Dizziness or vertigo
  • Scalp tenderness
  • Visual disturbances, such as flashes of light or blind spots in your vision
  • Abnormal body sensations, called paresthesias, such as tingling, numbing or prickling

Migraine is diagnosed based on the description of your symptoms and a neurological examination. No laboratory or imaging tests are needed to identify the condition. Your doctor will ask about the severity, frequency and duration of your headaches as well as other symptoms you experience and any medications you take.

Before meeting with a headache specialist, maintaining a headache journal that tracks headache patterns can provide helpful information for your diagnosis and treatment. Information to note in your journal includes:

  • Duration of pain
  • Location and severity of pain
  • Other symptoms that accompany headache, such as sound or light sensitivity
  • Medications taken
  • Possible headache triggers

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Identifying Triggers

Migraine attacks can be triggered by a number of factors. By identifying and avoiding these triggers, you can help manage your headaches. Keeping a headache journal that tracks the date, time of onset of your headache, a list of medications and other external factors can help you and your doctor track patterns and plan treatment.

Common trigger factors include:

  • Environmental Factors — Migraine headaches can be triggered by environmental conditions including weather or temperature changes, glaring or fluorescent lights, computer screens, strong odors and high altitude.
  • Hormones — Many women and girls have migraine attacks just prior to or during the first few days of their menstrual period. This is due to fluctuations in estrogen levels. Menstrual-related migraines can be more debilitating, difficult to treat and longer lasting than other migraines. They typically subside as women age, particularly after menopause.
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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.

Related Information

UCSF Clinics & Centers

Pediatric Brain Center

Child and Adolescent Headache Program
1825 Fourth St., 5th Floor, 5A
San Francisco, CA 94158
Phone: (415) 502-1914
Fax: (415) 353-2400
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