Migraines May Hamper Kids' School Performance

A little boys holds his head, as if in pain.
(Image credit: Headache photo via Shutterstock)

Children with migraine headaches may do worse in school than other students, a new study suggests.

Kids in the study who suffered episodic migraines (i.e., migraines occurring fewer than 14 days each month) were 1.3 times more likely perform below average in school, compared to kids who didn't have any type of headache. And kids with chronic migraines (i.e., migraines occurring 15 or more days each month) were 1.6 times more likely to perform below average in school, compared to kids without headaches.

"For years, we've had few studies that have linked the symptoms of migraines to the burden on children and families," said Dr. Lenora Lehwald, a neurologist at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Studies such as this one may help get "buy-in" from schools in helping kids who suffer migraines get prompt treatment, she said.

"Children with migraines need immediate treatment, or their meds won't work as well," said Lehwald, who was not involved in the study. "Having the school understand the significance of the headache helps move the treatment more quickly along," she said.

Kids with migraines often have to deal not only with their physical pain, but also the frustration of adults not understanding the condition, Lehwald said. "This is not a malingering child, this is a pathology that needs treatment."

Migraines and school

In the study, researchers looked at 5,700 children in Brazil, between ages 5 and 12, collecting data by interviewing teachers and parents. The study was conducted by researchers at Merck & Co., a pharmaceutical company, and is published today (Oct. 29) in the journal Neurology.

Of the 1,108 children in the study who had no headaches, 257 (23 percent) were rated by their teachers as performing below average in school. By contrast, of the 486 children with episodic migraines, 158 (33 percent) were rated as performing below average, and 13 of the 35 (37 percent) of children with chronic migraines were rated as such.

In addition, the study showed that kids with migraines were also more likely to have missed at least one day of school in the last six months, and more likely to have left school before the end of the school day, as compared with children who get tension headaches rather than migraines.

In her experience treating children who suffer migraines, Lehwald said, she has met some patients who feel the school doesn’t understand how physically debilitating their symptoms can be. "The school may think the kid is making up the symptoms. Kids feel very discouraged, and like nobody understands."

Such feelings may further affect children's moods and self-esteem, and make them even less likely to report their symptoms, she said.

What parents can do

Parents can also help their help children who have migraines do better in school by keeping them on regular schedules, Lehwald said. For children with migraines, "having a very even-keel lifestyle puts them less at risk of having a migraine. Staying hydrated, not skipping meals, adhering to a good sleep schedule," can all help, she said. "They need a predictable 24-hour schedule."

Parents can also model for their children the type of attention they need to give to their migraines as soon as one starts. A migraine “can be a really debilitating experience if not treated as an emergency. Parents can help a child learn that, too."

Pass it on: Kids with migraine headaches may face difficulties in school, a new study finds.

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Karen Rowan
Health Editor
Karen came to LiveScience in 2010, after writing for Discover and Popular Mechanics magazines, and working as a correspondent for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. She holds an M.S. degree in science and medical journalism from Boston University, as well as an M.S. in cellular biology from Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to becoming a journalist, Karen taught science at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill. for eight years.