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Treating Migraines in Teens

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Updated March 01, 2010

Migraines can affect people of all ages, from childhood to adulthood, but treating migraines in teens can require a unique approach. After age 15, as many as 20 percent or more of teens will experience migraines. During adolescence, girls are more commonly affected than boys.

Differences from Adult Migraines

Teens may experience many of the same symptoms as adults with migraines, but there are a few exceptions. Migraines in teens may last as long as 48 hours, which is a longer duration than in adults. Also, they can affect one or both sides of the head, while in adults they tend to affect both sides simultaneously. Light sensitivity (photophobia) and sound sensitivity (phonophobia) are common symptoms of migraines, and teens can experience both at the same time.

Basic Treatment Options in Teens

Most studies about treating migraines in teens (ages 12-18) have looked at acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Both are available over the counter, and both are relatively safe when used properly. Ibuprofen has been more rigorously studied and has been shown to be quite effective in treating headaches. Acetaminophen works a bit faster than ibuprofen, but in general, it is not as effective in overall pain reduction.

Naproxen is another non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) that may be used for treating migraines in teens. Studies have not yet supported using it over ibuprofen or acetaminophen, but your teen's health care provider may feel it is an appropriate choice.

Imitrex (sumatriptan), which is sometimes referred to as one of the "triptan" medications, can be taken by mouth, sprayed into the nose, or injected just under the skin. Studies show that the nasal spray version can be an effective treatment for migraines in teens. Besides treating the headache, it may also decrease secondary symptoms like nausea or light sensitivity.

Other prescription medications that have been studied but not yet "proven" as effective treatments for adolescent patients include other triptan medications like Maxalt (rizatriptan) or Zomig (zolmitriptan). However, your teen's doctor may feel one of these medications is the best treatment for him or her.

Other Considerations

While traditional medications are certainly valid choices for treatment, there is also evidence to suggest that adolescents respond well to behavioral therapies. Helping teens to recognize and avoid triggers can go a long way toward preventing migraines from starting. Also, some studies seem to suggest that biofeedback also helps teens deal more effectively with their pain.

Whatever treatment approach you select for your teen, be sure to involve his or her primary care provider.

Sources:

D. Lewis. Headaches in children and adolescents. Am Fam Physician. 2002 Feb 15;65(4):625-32.

D. Lewis, et al. "Practice Parameter: Pharmacological treatment of migraine headache in children and adolescents: Report of the American Academy of Neurology Quality Standards Subcommittee and the Practice Committee of the Child Neurology Society." Neurology, Dec 2004; 63: 2215 - 2224.

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