Understanding Abdominal Migraines

Questions and Answers on Migraines that Cause Abdominal Discomfort

Is My Child's Stomach Pain an Abdominal Migraine?. Vladmir Godnick/Getty Images

Parents of children with recurrent abdominal pain of a chronic nature know all too well the extensive doctor visits and tests that their little ones have gone through. Hopefully, if you are the parent of a child with such pain, you have a diagnosis and good treatment plan by now.

Here is a closer look at a form of functional abdominal pain, called abdominal migraine — that can be challenging to treat but is not life-threatening.

Who Gets Abdominal Migraines?

About 4-15% of children with chronic, recurrent abdominal pain of unknown cause suffer from abdominal migraines, according to one study in Headache. These migraine attacks usually begin between the ages of 3 and 10.

Can Adults Get Abdominal Migraines?

While this headache disorder is classically diagnosed only in children, there is now more scientific evidence that this could be a diagnosis in some adults who see their doctors for abdominal pain — especially if they have a family history of migraines.

There is also thought that abdominal migraines in children are precursors to migraine attacks as an adult.

How is Abdominal Migraine Diagnosed?

Other sources of gastrointestinal illness or etiologies of abdominal pain — especially anatomic, infectious, inflammatory, or metabolic — need to be ruled out in children with chronic abdominal pain before the diagnosis of abdominal migraine can be made.

Where is the Pain of an Abdominal Migraine Located?

The obvious answer here is the abdomen — usually, children will point to their belly button or around their belly button, but the pain can be anywhere in the midline location, according to criteria from the International Classification of Headache Disorders 3rd version.

What Does the Pain Feel Like?

The pain has a dull or "just sore" quality and is of moderate to severe intensity — so not something children can usually put out of their minds.

Are There Other Symptoms Associated with Abdominal Migraines?

At least two of the following symptoms are present during an abdominal migraine:

  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • pallor

How Long Do Abdominal Migraine Attacks Last?

They can last from 2 hours up to three days if not treated or treated unsuccessfully. A prominent feature of abdominal migraine is that between attacks, children are pain-free.

How are Abdominal Migraines Treated?

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of studies that have adequately assessed the treatment of abdominal migraines. Reassurance that there is no major abdominal pathology occurring and trigger avoidance — especially foods — may be successful. Medications that have been found to be effective in preventing abdominal migraines for children include:

    For adults, topiramate (Topamax) may be a reasonable option for preventing abdominal migraines, according to one study in Annals of Pharmacotherapy.

    Bottom Line

    Chronic abdominal pain in children can have a significant negative impact on their quality of life and interfere greatly with their peer relationships and school and social functions. If you or your child suffers from chronic, recurrent abdominal pain, please be sure to undergo a thorough workup by a gastrointestinal specialist.

    Sources:

    Carson L et al. Abdominal migraine: an under-diagnosed cause of recurrent abdominal pain in children. Headache. 2011 May;51(5):707-12.

    Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

    Roberts, J.E. & deShazo RD. Abdominal migraine, another cause of abdominal pain in adults. Am J Med. 2012 Nov;125(11):1135-9.

    Woodruff, A.E., Cieri, N.E., Abeles, J. & Seyse SJ. Abdominal migraine in adults: a review of pharmacotherapeutic options. Ann Pharmacother. 2013 Jun;47(6):e27.

    DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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