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Migraine and Chronic Pain in Teenagers

Having a chronic illness or chronic pain is life-altering and the stigma of invisible illness can be infuriating for anyone, but it can be especially difficult for teenagers. Sometimes the very people who are supposed to support and protect them — teachers, coaches, school nurses, doctors and even parents — don’t even believe them. (Sadly, many of you don’t have to imagine this scenario because you lived it.)

Psychology professor and Psychology Today blogger Nancy Darling, whose teen son has migraine, provides an insightful and touching take on migraine and chronic pain in teenagers.

Withdrawn, Irritable Teen? Is It A Migraine? points out that migraine often doesn’t look like migraine and that the associated¬†absentmindedness, irritability and isolation can look like a normal “teenage funk.” She also explains why migraine looks so much like a kid trying to get out of going to school.

Children Who Go to School in Pain walks readers through a day when her son has a migraine. The most poignant part is “faking being well.” That’s right, despite the common accusation that the chronically ill are faking illness, many of us are actually faking being well. Whether you’re a teenager or adult, I’m betting that resonates with many of you; it certainly does me.

Please take a look at Dr. Darling’s posts. Even if you’re not a parent, the struggles she describes are important for everyone to be aware of. As a former teenager with chronic illness, I’m relieved to read about a topic that gets far too little attention.

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Teenagers With Chronic Daily Headache or Migraine Have Greater Suicide Risk

Young teenagers with chronic daily headache, particularly migraine with aura, have a six times greater risk of suicide than teens without headache disorders. This is according to a study in Taipei of 7,900 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 14.

From Medscape (you can get a password from BugMeNot):

“Young adolescents with chronic daily headache (CDH), particularly those who have migraines with aura, are at 6 times greater risk for suicide than their headache-free peers, new research suggests.”

“Individuals with migraine headaches were 3.5 times more likely to have a psychiatric disorder than those without migraine. In addition, the investigators found those who had migraine with aura were at even greater risk for psychiatric disorders and higher suicide risk.”

“Age and sex effects were also associated with increased risk for depressive disorders, but not anxiety disorders. Female subjects were more likely to have major depression than male participants (26% vs 7%). They were also much more likely than their male counterparts to have any type of depressive disorder (37% vs 10%).”

It’s scary news, but as someone who had migraine and chronic daily headache and depression as a teenager, I’m not surprised. If you have a child with a headache disorder or are an adult with one, please take a look at these important notes:

Chronic daily headache is defined as 15 or more headache days per month. Even if your child doesn’t have a headache or migraine every single day, he or she could have chronic daily headache.

While being sad, frustrated or anxious are common emotions for people with chronic illness, they can also be indicators of a psychiatric disorder. Depression or anxiety are real, serious physiological disorders that
many headache sufferers also have
. Psychiatric and headache disorders are often referred to as comorbid conditions.

Headaches and nausea are the most obvious symptoms of migraine, but migraines can also cause many other symptoms. These include mental confusion, trouble understanding and finding words, irritability, hyperactivity, sweating and sighing. Such little-known symptoms can be as debilitating and disturbing as the pain.

Adults with migraine also have a higher risk of suicide than people without
. This graph* is shocking.

If you are feeling suicidal, please call a hotline for help. In the US call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433). If you live anywhere else, check this list of international suicide prevention hotlines.

*The site with the graph is no longer loading. I know it’s a reputable site, so I’m keeping the link in thinking that the site will magically regenerate.

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High Frequency & Severity of Migraine in Teens

As a teenager, my occasional headaches became chronic within a couple years. Many other people have told me the same story and a study presented at the 58th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology confirms the frequency of this occurrence.

The nationwide study of 18,714 adolescents found that headaches are causing a lot of disability for kids 12 to 19 years and that their headaches are not adequately treated. In a one-year period, 5% of boys and 7.7% of girls reported frequent migraines.

Researchers found that adolescents’ migraines often go from one or two times a month to 10 to 15 times a month within a couple years. The quick transition from occasional to chronic migraine is astonishing. Especially because there is some evidence that headaches become harder and harder to treat as their frequency increases.