brand logo

Am Fam Physician. 2009;80(12):1445-1446

Author disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Diagnosis of migraine headache in children can be difficult because it depends on subjective symptoms, and diagnostic criteria are broader than in adults.

  • Migraine occurs in 3 to 10 percent of children and increases with age up to puberty.

  • Migraine spontaneously remits after puberty in one half of children; however, if it begins during adolescence, it may be more likely to persist throughout adulthood.

We do not know whether paracetamol, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or codeine phosphate relieve the pain of migraine in children, because few studies have been found. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted, good clinical practice that paracetamol, an NSAID such as ibuprofen, or a combination of both is the first-line therapy for headache relief during acute attacks unless contraindicated.

There is increasing evidence that nasal sumatriptan is likely to be beneficial in reducing pain at two hours compared with placebo in children 12 to 17 years of age with persisting headache.

  • Oral rizatriptan may reduce nausea, but it has not been shown to reduce pain compared with placebo.

  • We do not know whether oral zolmitriptan or eletriptan are effective compared with placebo; data regarding zolmitriptan are conflicting and data regarding eletriptan are limited.

We do not know whether antiemetics are beneficial for treating an acute attack of childhood migraine, because we found no studies.

Pizotifen is widely used as prophylaxis in children with migraine, but we found no studies assessing its effectiveness.

  • When used prophylactically, stress management programs may improve headache severity and frequency in the short term compared with no stress management.

  • Studies of beta blockers as prophylaxis in children have had inconsistent results, and propranolol may even increase the duration of headaches compared with placebo.

  • We do not know whether prophylactic dietary manipulation, thermal biofeedback, or progressive muscle relaxation can prevent recurrence of migraine in children.

There is inconclusive evidence that topiramate may be useful as prophylaxis in children with migraine.

What are the effects of treatments for acute attacks of migraine headache in children?
Beneficial5-HT1 antagonists
Likely to be beneficialNonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs*
Unknown effectivenessAntiemetics
Codeine phosphate
What are the effects of prophylaxis for migraine headache in children?
Likely to be beneficialStress management
Unknown effectivenessBeta blockers
Dietary manipulation
Progressive muscle relaxation
Thermal biofeedback


Migraine is defined by the International Headache Society (IHS) as a recurrent headache that occurs with or without aura and that lasts two to 48 hours. It is usually unilateral in nature, pulsating in quality, of moderate or severe intensity, and is aggravated by routine physical activity. Nausea, vomiting, photophobia, and phonophobia are common accompanying symptoms. This review focuses on migraine in children younger than 18 years.

Diagnostic criteria for children are broader than criteria for adults, allowing for a broader range of duration and a broader localization of the pain. Diagnosis is difficult in young children because the condition is defined by subjective symptoms. Studies that do not explicitly use criteria that are congruent with IHS diagnostic criteria (or revised IHS criteria in children younger than 16 years) have been excluded from this review.

Many children with a symptom cluster that includes headache may not perfectly match the IHS classification, but may benefit from medical interventions currently in use. Therefore, a liberal approach to symptomatology is likely to be beneficial in clinical practice.


Migraine occurs in 3 to 10 percent of children. It currently affects 50 out of 1,000 school-aged children in the United Kingdom, and an estimated 7.8 million children in the European Union. Studies in resource-poor countries suggest that migraine is the most common diagnosis in children presenting with headache to a medical practitioner. It is rarely diagnosed in children younger than two years because of the symptom-based definition, but its incidence increases steadily with age thereafter. It affects boys and girls similarly before puberty, but girls are more likely to have migraine after puberty.


The cause of migraine headaches is unknown. We found few reliable data identifying risk factors or measuring their effects in children. Suggested risk factors include stress, certain foods, menses, and exercise in genetically predisposed children.


We found no reliable data about the prognosis of childhood migraine headache diagnosed by IHS criteria. Psychological factors that contribute to symptoms should be taken into account when considering expectations for treatment success. Not all treatments work for every child—some will not respond to medications with the clearest evidence available from controlled trials to support their use. It has been suggested that more than one half of children have spontaneous remission after puberty. Migraine that develops during adolescence often continues in adulthood, although attacks tend to be less frequent and severe over time.

We found one longitudinal study from Sweden (73 children with “pronounced” migraine and a mean age of six years at onset) with more than 40 years of follow-up, which predated the IHS criteria for migraine headache. The study found that migraine headaches had ceased before 25 years of age in 23 percent of participants. However, by 50 years of age, more than one half of participants continued to have migraine headaches. We found no prospective data examining long-term risks in children with migraine.

editor's note: Paracetamol is available as acetaminophen in the United States; pizotifen is not available in the United States.

search date: May 2008

Adapted with permission from Barnes N, James E. Migraine headache in children. Clin Evid Handbook.

Continue Reading

More in AFP

Copyright © 2009 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

This content is owned by the AAFP. A person viewing it online may make one printout of the material and may use that printout only for his or her personal, non-commercial reference. This material may not otherwise be downloaded, copied, printed, stored, transmitted or reproduced in any medium, whether now known or later invented, except as authorized in writing by the AAFP.  See permissions for copyright questions and/or permission requests.