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What Are Abdominal Migraines In Kids? Experts Explain

They're more than just an upset tummy.

Your child tells you that their stomach is hurting them. Instantly, you ask what they ate, and when it appears that they haven’t ingested anything that could be the culprit (like too many cookies, or worse, a battery), you just assume that it’ll go away on its own. But as the problem persists, you find that ginger ale or bland foods like rice or toast aren’t doing the trick. So as you start searching for answers online, you might come across this term: abdominal migraines. But what are abdominal migraines in children? Those tummy troubles might be more serious than a standard stomachache.

What Are Abdominal Migraines?

Some stomach aches here and there are common with kids. It’s when the episodes become more frequent (and fierce) that there could be something more serious going on, like abdominal migraines. “Abdominal migraines (AMs) are a cause of chronic and recurrent abdominal pain in children,” Dr. Denise Scott, MD, a pediatrician with JustAnswer tells Romper. “They are characterized by moderate to severe, diffuse abdominal pain, usually in the midline, that can last 2-72 hours.”

In addition to pain, your child might have a headache, nausea, loss of appetite, and light sensitivity if they have an abdominal migraine. They may also become pale, and it could interfere with their daily activities. Episodes can occur at least twice or more within a 6-month period, but when your child isn’t experiencing it, they’ll probably feel just fine.

How Does An Abdominal Migraine Differ From A Tummy Ache?

That’s pretty scary stuff, you think. So how would you know if your child’s tummy is hurting from those spicy chicken nuggets that they ate, and not because of an abdominal migraine? Well, one of the biggest ways to tell is by the symptoms stated above. If your child has a standard stomachache, they might not have those other issues, and definitely not as frequently. “Stomach pain in children can be due to several issues, including stress and anxiety manifesting as abdominal pain,” Dr. Alexander Perelman, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist with Vanguard Gastroenterology in New York City tells Romper. “Common other conditions such as constipation, infections, kidney problems, and even inflammatory bowel disease will often have a different presentation and clinical history.” All of these conditions can be ruled out by testing to determine what the culprit is.

Is There Any Connection Between Abdominal Migraines And Head Migraines?

If you thought that migraines were all in your head, think again. While migraines are most often thought of as a head-related issue, they can appear in other parts of the body, like the abdomen. But is there a link between the migraines in the tummy and in the brain? Absolutely, says Dr. Scott. “Typically there is a family history of migraine headaches,” she says. Dr. Perelman agrees, adding: “More than half of those diagnosed have a family history of migraine headaches, suggesting a genetic component as well.”

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What Causes Abdominal Migraines?

The answer is, sadly: no one really knows. “Although there are numerous hypotheses for what leads to abdominal migraines, the actual causes are unknown,” says Dr. Scott. “There is thought to be a link between the nervous system of the gut and the central nervous system that leads to a gut hypersensitivity, or possibly genetic factors, but nothing has been proven.” According to Dr. Scott, the average age for diagnosis ranges from 3 to 10 years, with a peak at 7 years. “Abdominal migraines can occur in 1-9% of children overall but make up 4-15% of those children with chronic abdominal pain,” she says. And according to a study, abdominal migraines affect girls more often than boys.

Here’s How To Treat Abdominal Migraines

It’s hard for doctors to treat a medical issue without a specific known cause. And while that might be frustrating for parents who see their children struggling with abdominal pain, there are ways to help diminish the discomfort. “Without a clear understanding of the mechanism of disease, the treatment is limited to ruling out more sinister issues, and focusing on preventing episodes of AM,” explains Dr. Perelman. “This includes typical interventions such as proper hydration, good sleep hygiene, and limiting stress.” You might even want to take your child to a therapist to help address other issues, particularly if the AM is stress-related. “Administer cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to your child to relieve stress,” Dr. Victoria Glass, MD, a practicing physician with Farr Institute tells Romper. “This may improve some symptoms before reaching the doctor's office.”

If the abdominal migraines might be due to something your kid is snacking on, a nutritionist will be included in your child’s medical team to eliminate anything that could irritate their tummy. “There can also be certain food triggers: citrus, caffeine, cheese, chocolate, carbonated drinks, colorings and flavorings such as MSG,” says Dr. Scott, but advises that triggers can be different for each child. But if you can pinpoint a potential reason for the pain — whether it’s poor sleep, flashing lights, travel, or stress — those triggers should be avoided.

In some instances, medications might be prescribed to treat symptoms, and these meds are often used to help those with migraine headaches, too. “Medication options are limited with a focus on pain control and symptom relief during attacks,” Dr. Perelman explains. “The science is limited, but the data suggests ibuprofen can help shorten duration of symptoms. If nausea and vomiting are severe, the doctor may prescribe an antiemetic, either in oral dissolvable form or as a rectal suppository.” According to Dr. Perelman, if attacks are common and debilitating, a pediatric gastroenterologist can perform further testing and may suggest a preventative daily medication such as propranolol or cyproheptadine, two drugs that are commonly used to treat migraines, the National Institutes of Health reported.

But there is a silver lining, though. While tummy trouble might not feel great, the good news is that abdominal migraines completely go away all on their own in almost all cases, according to a PubMed study.

Here’s What You Need To Be Aware Of When It Comes To Abdominal Migraines

While they can be unpleasant (and sometimes painful), abdominal migraines do go away. And for the most part, they aren’t dangerous, either. Still, in some instances, you might need to seek medical attention right away, particularly “if the pain is severe, accompanied by fever, loss of appetite, inability to pass urine, passage of bloody or black stool, this should prompt a visit for urgent evaluation,” Dr. Perelman advises.

Abdominal migraines might be a precursor to further migraines in the future. “AMs eventually resolve with age and time,” says Dr. Scott. “However, a high percentage of these children will later develop migraine headaches.” If there is a family history of migraines, you might want to speak to your child’s pediatrician as well as a pediatric oncologist to find out what the next steps should be.

Although it sucks to see your little sweetie in pain, just keep in mind that eventually, abdominal migraines will go away — permanently. But if you ever have any questions about the severity of the condition (or are questioning what’s normal and what’s not), you should trust your own gut and talk to your child’s pediatrician to seek out the answers you need.

Studies cited:

Popovich, D, Schentrup, D., McAlhany, A.. “Recognizing and diagnosing abdominal migraines” 2010.

Mani, J., Madani, S. “Pediatric abdominal migraine: current perspectives on a lesser known entity” 2018.

Brenner, M., Lewis, D. “The Treatment of Migraine Headaches in Children and Adolescents” 2008.


Dr. Denise Scott, MD, a pediatrician with JustAnswer

Dr. Alexander Perelman, MD, a board-certified gastroenterologist with Vanguard Gastroenterology in New York City

Dr. Victoria Glass, MD, a practicing physician with Farr Institute