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migraines and headaches in children

Anxiety is at least twice as common in both children and adults with migraine headaches compared to people without migraines. A new study presented at the recent American Headache Society meeting examined the impact of anxiety on functioning in pediatric migraine population. The researchers analyzed records of 530 kids with migraine and 371 with tension-type headache seen in the pediatric neurology clinic of the Boston Children’s Hospital.

Dr. Lebel and her colleagues discovered that physiological anxiety was associated with more severe functional disability in kids with both migraines and tension-type headaches. Physiological anxiety often manifests itself by sleep difficulties, racing heart, shortness of breath, feeling shaky, fatigue, and other. The other two types of anxiety, worry and social anxiety did not seem to lead to more disability.

This study confirms the importance of cognitive and behavioral treatments, such as progressive relaxation, biofeedback, meditation, and cognitive therapy. Kids are very good at these techniques and they are particularly receptive to smartphone-based apps. For meditation, I recommend 10% Happier and Headspace. TaraBrach.com offers free podcasts for meditation and ThisWayUp.org.au provides very inexpensive and scientifically proven cognitive-behavioral therapy.

At the NY Headache Center we always try to avoid drugs, especially in children. In addition to cognitive and behavioral techniques, we address sleep, exercise, diet and supplements such as magnesium, CoQ10, and other. If medication is needed, this study suggests that a beta blocker, such as propranolol (Inderal) may be a good choice because in addition to preventing migraines, it reduces physiological symptoms of anxiety (it is also used for performance anxiety). Potential side effects of beta blockers are mostly due to its pressure lowering effect and include fatigue, dizziness, and lightheadedness.

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Most children who complain of headaches report pain in the forehead and/or temples. Doctors and parents tend to get more alarmed when a child complains of a headache in the back of the head and such children are more likely to have an MRI scan of the brain. According to a new study published in Neurology, there is no reason for concern.

The researchers examined records of 308 children under 18 (median age was 12) seen at a pediatric neurology clinic and found that 7% of them had pain only in the occipital area, while another 14% had pain in the occipital and another part of the head. The majority of children had migraine headaches. Not surprisingly, more kids with pain in the back of the head had an MRI scan. However, they did not have any more abnormal MRI findings than children with pain in other parts of the head. In fact none of the 4 children in this group who had a serious problem (2 had tumors and 2 had increased pressure) had occipital pain.

Considering that migraine headaches are common in children (4-11% of all kids) there is no need to do MRI scans in all kids with recurrent headaches. The American Academy of Neurology and Child Neurology Society do not recommend a CAT or MRI scan in children with recurrent headaches and a normal neurologic examination. However, 45% of children do get neuroimaging. Imaging is particularly unnecessary if other members of the family suffer from similar headaches.

Neuroimaging is indicated in patients with recurrent headaches and abnormal neurologic examination, seizures, those with recent onset of severe headaches or recent changes in the character of headaches. Changes in the character of headaches may include shift in location, increase in frequency or severity, new associated symptoms such as blurred vision, dizziness, fever, and other.

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The field of marijuana research is starting to take off due to the wider acceptance of medicinal marijuana. The other night I attended a lecture in NYC by the “father of cannabis”, Raphael Mechoulam.

According to Wikipedia, “Dr. Mechoulam is an Israeli organic chemist and professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Mechoulam is best known for his work (together with Y. Gaoni) in the isolation, structure elucidation and total synthesis of THC (?9-tetrahydrocannabinol), the main active ingredient of cannabis and for the isolation and the identification of the endogenous cannabinoids anandamide from the brain and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) from peripheral organs together with his students, postdocs and collaborators.”

Dr. Mechoulam identified THC in 1964 and in his lecture he lamented the paucity of research into the many potential healing properties of cannabis in the past 50 years. He strongly feels that the two main active ingredients in marijuana, THC and CBD should be tested rigorously in large double-blind studies just like any other prescription drug. This will allow doctors to prescribe a proven medicine, rather than rely on anecdotal reports and go through trial and error, as we are doing now. His research suggests that cannabis ingredients could possibly help a wide variety of conditions, from diabetes and cancer to pain and nausea.

Prescribing medical marijuana is at least possible in New York and 20 other states, so that we do not have to wait, possibly up to 10 years, for a cannabis-based drug to be approved by the FDA (one CBD-containing drug might be approved soon for a rare form of epilepsy).

At this time we have to go through trials of various ratios of THC and CBD and various modes of delivery (inhaled, sublingual or oral) to determine the best treatment for each patients. Another obstacle is the fact that no insurance company pays for medical marijuana. After a year of prescribing medical marijuana for patients with migraine and other painful conditions it is clear that it works for a minority of my patients. However, I prescribe it only after more traditional methods fail, so my results may not be as good as if I used medical marijuana earlier. Our standard approach involves lifestyle changes, regular exercise, dietary changes, magnesium, CoQ10, and other supplements, followed by drugs and Botox injections. These are mostly well-studied treatments and with the possible exception of drugs, should precede the use of medical marijuana. Having said that, For a few of my patients medical marijuana dramatically improved their quality of life and I am very glad that we have this treatment option available.

Dr. Rafael Mechoulam and Dr. Alexander Mauskop
May 4, 2017, NYC

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