Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Relieves Chronic Migraine in Children and Adolescents

Another large scientific article on the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) was just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. In this study by doctors at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital led by Dr. Andrew Hershey, CBT was combined with amitriptyline (an antidepressant used for the treatment of pain and headaches) and compared to headache education plus amitriptyline.

They enrolled 135 children (79% girls) aged 10 to 17 years who were diagnosed with chronic migraine (15 days with headaches per month or more) and who had migraine-related disability. The study was conducted between October 2006 and September 2012. An unusually large number of kids completed the trial – 129 completed 20-week follow-up and 124 completed 12-month follow-up.

The treatment consisted of ten CBT or 10 headache education sessions involving equivalent time and therapists’ attention. Each group received the same dose of amitriptyline per pound of weight.

The main end point was days with headache and the secondary end point was the disability score determined at 20 weeks. Durability was examined over the 12-month follow-up period.

The results at the 20-week end point showed that days with headache were reduced by 11.5 for the CBT plus amitriptyline group vs 6.8 for the headache education plus amitriptyline group. The disability score decreased by 53 points for the CBT group vs 39 points for the headache education group. At 12-month follow-up, 86% of the CBT group had a 50% or greater reduction in headache days vs 69% of the headache education group;

The authors concluded that among young persons with chronic migraine, the use of CBT plus amitriptyline resulted in greater reductions in days with headache and migraine-related disability compared with use of headache education plus amitriptyline. These findings support the efficacy of CBT in the treatment of chronic migraine in children and adolescents.

The accompanying editorial strongly endorsed the results of the study, which is only the last one of many studies showing the benefits of CBT with or without biofeedback in treating headaches in children and adults. The editorial also pointed out several obstacles to the implementation of these findings. First, many doctors do not refer their patients for CBT because they are not aware of these studies or, more often lack the time and the training to explain the benefits of CBT without implying that the headache is a purely psychological problem, which obviously it is not. Secondly, even if they do refer for CBT, less than half of children and adults actually pursue this treatment.

Most doctors usually just prescribe amitriptyline or an epilepsy drug used for chronic migraines. In my experience with adolescents, Botox provides excellent relief for chronic migraines in children as well as it does in adults, although Botox is approved by the FDA only for adults. Botox has far fewer side effects than medications and I find that it is well accepted and tolerated by kids as young as 10. However, I always start with dietary changes, sleep hygiene, exercise, supplements such as magnesium and CoQ10 and CBT, biofeedback or meditation. These measures alone are often sufficient to provide significant relief and in many children there is no need for medications or Botox.

  1. Dr. Mauskop says: 05/24/20172:27 am

    Yes, it is better to find a CBT therapist who is experienced in treating headaches and pain and the best way to find one is through a doctor who specializes in treating headaches or by word of mouth. The type of CBT is less important.

  2. Monique says: 05/23/20175:19 pm

    I assume not all CBT therapy is the same. How can I find a CBT therapist that has experience treating/preventing headaches? Thanks!

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