Is looking at your child like looking in a mirror? Genetic traits passed along from parents to kids can create strong family resemblances. Genes can also pass along less obvious similarities, like being prone to headaches or migraines. 

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

Elser, a migraine sufferer himself, has studied the causes and treatments for headaches and migraines for over three decades. Since 1987, when the Neurology Headache Clinic at ACH was founded, Elser and the ACH specialists have cared for 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 headache causes, another misconception is that kids can’t 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 things.”

While it’s important to take a child’s headache complaint seriously, Elser also said not to be worried that headaches or migraines are symptoms of other serious conditions. Parents of children with frequent or severe headaches often fear the worst, but a short 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.

Studying 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 kids have migraines or headaches severe enough to need treatment is difficult because young kids have a hard time putting their pain into words. Kids with recurring headaches may not realize their pain is abnormal. Migraines in young people become more common in early adolescence, around 10 to13 years old, but the youngest patient Elser has treated for migraines was 9 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,
  • is accompanied by nausea or vomiting,
  • or includes sensitivity to light and noise,
then it’s a migraine.

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

Treatment for Relief

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

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

  • Eating healthy
  • Sleeping well
  • Exercising
  • Staying hydrated
  • Using a variety of stress-reducing techniques

In other words, our headache experts try to make it possible for kids to still enjoy chocolate without triggering a migraine rather than giving up chocolate completely. Talking with your child helps our specialists find strategies to 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’s cool and quiet and try to rest. “For a true migraine, the body’s way to fix itself is to put itself to sleep.”

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

Discover how the Neurology Headache Clinic at Arkansas Children’s uses a team-based approach to care and manage headaches and their symptoms. 


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