5 Causes Of Migraines In Teens And Their Treatments

Image: Shutterstock


Once in a month or two, Tania would come home from school with a terrible headache. On those days, she’d go straight up to her room, draw the blinds and sleep. She’d refuse to eat anything and scream at anyone who entered her room. Anyone who saw Tania like that would think it was just some teen drama.

But not Tania’s parents. They knew about their daughter’s migraine attacks and felt helpless about them. But migraines in teens are not uncommon. MomJunction tells you what you need to know about the migraine headaches in teenagers and how to deal with them to make your child’s life easier.

Is Migraine Just A Headache?

No. Migraine is not just a bad headache. A headache is a pain in the head but a migraine is a complicated neurological condition, most likely an alteration in the neurological activity of the brain muscles. This results in a combination of uncomfortable symptoms that can leave you weak, and even disabled, for a brief period.

Migraine pain is often unbearable and lasts anywhere between four and 72 hours. Sometimes it can last longer. Children aged five or less can also get a migraine, but that lasts for shorter duration. It is a episodic disease. A migraine attack can occur once a week, month, or even year in some cases, as that varies from an individual to individual.

Some teens may have a headache every day, due to muscle tension. However, this is not necessarily related to a migraine.

[Read: Puberty Headaches]

Phases or stages of a migraine

People who suffer from a migraine are called migraineurs. Older children and teenagers go through four painful phases during a migraine attack.

  1. Prodrome, which begins around 24 hours before the migraine attack. In this phase, people experience intense euphoria, while some also experience irritability and other intense emotions.
  1. The Aura phase is the next, during which the teenager may develop extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Some people also experience disturbed vision and see weird patterns.
  1. A Headache is the longest phase, where all that the teenager experiences is a pain in one part of the head. Younger children experience an ache all over the head.
  1. In the Postdromal stage, after the headache subsides, people tend to feel weak, tired, and sluggish. Some may also feel confused at this stage.

5 Causes Of Migraine In Teenagers

Migraines usually develop at a young age and last for years. Some people have migraines for life. So what can cause migraines in teenagers?

Sadly, doctors are unable to pinpoint to the exact causes. However, some theories suggest how migraines are caused.

  1. Recent explanations of the causes of migraine include chemical changes in the brain due to the hyperexcitability of the brain cells. This affects an individual’s senses and perception, resulting in the symptoms of the Aura phase of the migraine (1).
  1. The second theory is that abnormal activity of the brain cells causes headaches that last for hours.
  1. Some researchers say that migraine triggers set off an abnormal brain cell activity. This abnormality spreads from one part of the brain to the rest of it, resulting in cortical depression preventing nerve cells from communicating with each other for a while (2).
  1. Migraines are more common in teenage girls than in boys. Estrogen, the female hormone in women, could cause headaches. As the levels of these hormones increase during puberty, they lead to long-lasting headaches. Hence the theory that migraines in teenagers can develop because of puberty came into being.
  1. Migraines could also be hereditary. Familial hemiplegic migraine is a type of a headache that usually runs in families. If at least one of the parents has a migraine, the child has a 50% chance of getting it (3). However, they are not contagious.

[Read: Brain Tumor In Teens]

While the causes of a migraine are being debated, research has collected a list of triggers that can set off a migraine in teens. So, if your teen has a migraine, then it is best to avoid the following triggers as far as possible.

  • Loud noise, bright lights, strong odors
  • Lack of sleep
  • Stress
  • Skipping meals
  • Alcohol, excessive caffeine, foods with preservatives such as sulfates, foods such as hot dogs that contain nitrates, and foods with a flavor enhancer called monosodium glutamate can also trigger a migraine attack
  • Some people also get a migraine attack if they consume chocolate, apple skins, bananas, or black tea with phenols or tannins.

The triggers for a migraine vary from one person to another. To know what exactly triggers a migraine in your teen, maintain a diary noting the frequency, date, and time, and the events preceding the headache.

5 Symptoms Of Migraines In Teenagers

How do you feel when you have a migraine? What are the signs of a migraine headache? Read the list of symptoms to know.

Symptoms and signs of a migraine headache include:

  1. A throbbing, pulsating unbearable headache, usually restricted to one side of the head
  1. Nausea is a common symptom among people taking pain killers for tension headaches
  1. Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and even smell in certain cases
  1. Sweating, change in body temperature, and stomach ache in rare cases
  1. Loss of sensation or numbness creating a feeling of powerlessness

The symptoms in the Aura phase can warn you about the impending migraine attack. And the symptoms include:

  • Seeing flashes of light – some people describe these visual disturbances like facing flashing cameras
  • Zigzag lines or patterns in the field of vision
  • Blind spots or patches in vision
  • Stiffness in neck
  • Difficulty speaking

Overall, there is a general feeling of sickness. Usually, a person experiences more or less the same symptoms during every attack. So if your teen experiences anything out of the ordinary, go to the doctor and get it checked immediately.

[Read: Symptoms Of Cerebral Palsy In Teens]

How To Recognize Migraine Pain In Teens?

A migraine is an ailment that can be self-diagnosed through the symptoms. However, if the symptoms are unusual or not clear enough for self-diagnosis, it is best to go to a doctor.

No one test can determine if a headache is due to a migraine. So the doctor may recommend one or more of the below tests to diagnose a migraine in teens. In most of the children diagnosis of Migraine is by ruling out other serious neurological conditions.

  • The doctor will collect the individual’s and the family’s medical history to know if the condition is familial.
  • Doctors usually follow the SNOOP methodology to check for certain worrisome symptoms that may indicate a migraine. SNOOP is a mnemonic created by The American Headache Society to ensure that the doctors check for – systematic symptoms, neurological symptoms, onset of the headache, older age of onset and prior headache history (4).
  • Blood tests may be done to check for any infection in the brain or spinal cord.
  • MRI – gives a clear picture of the blood vessels in the body, especially around the brain.
  • A computerized tomography to check for any tumors, infections, bleeding, etc., in the brain may be suggested.
  • An infection or bleeding in the brain may also be detected by a procedure called lumbar puncture (5).

Migraine Treatment For Teens

There is no known cure for a migraine. The only way to deal with a migraine is to control it by alleviating the symptoms. Doctors may prescribe:

  • Pain relief medications such as aspirin or ibuprofen to provide relief from mild headaches. For moderate pains, combination drugs such as Excedrin may be recommended. However, these are over-the-counter drugs and must be used as little as possible.
  • Anti-nausea medicines which help alleviate the symptoms.
  • Triptans, which block the pain pathways of the brain by constricting the blood vessels. Not all triptans are approved for kids, so exercise caution before giving it to the kids.
  • Ergots, which are a combination of caffeine and ergotamine, are more effective than triptans.

After the management of acute attack, if the child is getting frequent attacks of migraine, preventive medication may also be given by the doctor.

[Read: Ibuprofen Dosage For Teens]

Migraine Headaches Complications

A migraine in itself is a painful condition that can be unbearable by many. The intensity and the frequency of migraine headaches, however, can lead to some complications in people suffering from the condition.

  1. Status Migrainosus is a condition when the Aura phase of a migraine lasts for more than three days or 72 hours. Although it is rare, it leads to intense pain which may even warrant hospitalization.
  1. Another complication is when the symptoms of the Aura phase last longer than a week, even after the headache is mitigated.
  1. Migralepsy is a condition in which seizures are triggered due to a migraine.
  1. According to a study by the National Health Service of England, people with migraines are twice at risk of stroke when compared to people who don’t have a migraine.
  1. A study has revealed that a migraine may also lead to structural changes and even damage the brain bit by bit (6).
  1. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has stated that migraines may increase the risk of depression, general anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, bipolar disorder, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In addition to these, migraines could also lead to other syndromes such as grinding teeth in sleep, sleep talking, night terrors, and vertigo.

[Read: Treatment For Anxiety In Teenagers]

Home Remedies To Deal With A Migraine

What do you do when you have a migraine?

You take the medications and any supplements if needed to make the pain bearable. What you can also do is try these home remedies, which would alleviate the symptoms linked to a migraine, but not cure the condition itself.

1. Keep it cool

Keeping the head cool by placing an ice pack or a wet cloth on the forehead, neck, or scalp can help alleviate the migraine headache. While experts don’t exactly know how this helps, they associate it with the possible reduction of blood pressure in the head.

2. Cayenne pepper

Cayenne pepper has a compound called capsaicin, which acts as a natural painkiller.

  • Mix half a teaspoon of cayenne pepper powder in a glass of warm water.
  • You can add honey and lemon juice to improve the taste and give it to the teen as needed.

Please note that cayenne pepper is spicy and can cause irritation and burning sensation in the throat. So use this in very little quantities, unless your teenager is comfortable consuming something that spicy.

3. Apple cider vinegar

One of the many uses of apple cider vinegar is controlling migraines. Drinking a glass of water mixed with one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar and a tablespoon of honey for taste can help prevent migraines.

If your teen is not used to taking apple cider vinegar, use small quantities of it initially and gradually increase the dosage.

4. Peppermint

The aroma of peppermint can soothe the nerves and has an antispasmodic and calming effect on the person. A journal by the International Journal of Neuroscience says that peppermint aroma can provide relief from headaches. Give the teen a cup or two of peppermint green tea to alleviate the headache.

5. Chamomile

Chamomile is another herb that has a calming effect on the nerves. The soothing properties help bring relief from migraine headaches. Of the many varieties, German chamomile or Matricaria recuitita is more effective in treating headaches.

  • Add two teaspoons of dried chamomile to a hot cup of water, and let it sit for a few minutes.
  • Strain the tea and drink it.

6. Ginger

A study by Phytotherapy Research revealed that ginger could also provide relief from migraine headaches. Add ginger to green tea and give it to the teen following the onset of the headache. If your teen is willing, ask him or her to chew raw ginger to alleviate the nausea and any digestive issues (7).

7. Butterbur

Butterbur is known to reduce pain in the body. Researchers also found that when people take the butterbur extract, the frequency, as well as the intensity of migraine headaches, goes down.

8. Magnesium and potassium

Magnesium is necessary for proper functioning of the nerves. During a migraine attack, the levels of magnesium go down, which makes researchers think that the deficiency of magnesium and migraines are linked.

We don’t know how potassium helps in controlling migraines. But it is used in a painkiller that can alleviate migraine headaches.

Both potassium and magnesium are available as supplements.

[Read: Best Vitamins Supplements For Teens]

9. Feverfew

Feverfew has been an age-old home remedy to treat migraines. The herb contains an antispasmodic called parthenolide that helps in neutralizing prostaglandins that can influence the pain signals and reduce pain.

Make a cup of tea with peppermint and feverfew leaves and give it to the teen a few times every day.
You can also try eating two or three fresh feverfew leaves every day.

10. Lavender oil

Lavender oil has a calming effect too. Inhaling the aroma or applying a drop of lavender oil on the temples can help provide relief from the throbbing pain.

In addition to these, vitamins B12 and B6 are also known to alleviate migraine headaches. Alongside these home and herbal remedies, make sure your teen gets plenty of rest, preferably in a dark and quiet room. Also ensure that he or she does not miss any meals or lose sleep, as these can trigger a migraine attack.

Both teenagers and migraines can be difficult. And the best way to deal with teenage migraines is to try and prevent an attack, by managing the triggers better. The mantra is simple – if something gives you a migraine, avoid it.

Have any suggestions on how to manage migraine attacks in teens? Tell us about them here.

Recommended Articles

The following two tabs change content below.

Dr. Raju C Shah

Dr. Raju Shah is the medical director of the Ankur Institute of Child Health and is a former professor and head of the department of pediatrics at the GCS Medical College, both in Ahmedabad, India. He obtained his MBBS in 1970 and MD in pediatrics in 1974 from the B. J. Medical College in Ahmedabad and trained in vaccinology at... more

Dr Bisny T. Joseph

Dr. Bisny T. Joseph is a Georgian Board-certified physician. She has completed her professional graduate degree as a medical doctor from Tbilisi State Medical University, Georgia. She has 3+ years of experience in various sectors of medical affairs as a physician, medical reviewer, medical writer, health coach, and Q&A expert. Her interest in digital medical education and patient education made... more