What Is An Abdominal Migraine?

Growing Pains Or Abdominal Migraines - That Is The Question...

If not properly understood, abdominal migraines destroy children’s lives – leading to missed school, social difficulties and withdrawal. To avoid this you need to understand what is an abdominal migraine, the typical symptoms to look out for and what to do about them. There is no guarantee your family doctor will spot the signs.

Luckily, we cover all of that (and more) in this article, providing the most detail on the complex world of abdominal migraines (without subjecting you to a medical lecture!).

What Is An Abdominal Migraine?

Abdominal migraines are not your normal head-destroying, machete-wielding brain attacks normally associated with the term ‘migraine’.

Instead, they mostly haunt young children causing intense abdominal pain for periods of anything from 1 hour to 3 days.

Unfortunately, just like traditional migraines, they are very capable of causing the most debilitating, intense pain – frequently causing cramp, diarrhea, nausea and sickness.

The only real difference is that abdominal migraines focus on the stomachs of children instead of the brains of adults. There are still many similarities though – not least because many abdominal migraine sufferers go on to suffer with migraine headaches in adulthood.

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Who Do They Affect?

As mentioned previously, abdominal migraines mostly affect children – it is very rare for adults to suffer with them.

Most suffering children are typically diagnosed with abdominal migraines between the ages of 3-10 years – with the peak diagnosis being at 7 years old (Paediatric Health, Medicine and Therapeutics)

However, while abdominal migraines may be something of a mystery to many family doctors, it is calculated that up to 15% of all children that suffer with chronic stomach pain may actually be suffering with abdominal migraines.

Typical Symptoms Of Abdominal Migraines

Abdominal migraines are characterised by an intense pain in the centre of your son or daughter’s tummy – often around their belly button.

One big giveaway for their likely presence is that the pain is only in the centre of their stomach, not around the sides.

Unfortunately, there are no known indicators as to how long an abdominal migraine will last. Some may carry on for days, while others are gone within an hour.

Abdominal migraines are not difficult to spot though – proving you know which basic symptoms to look out for. Typical symptoms of abdominal migraines include –

  • Intense pain around the centre of the tummy
  • A sudden start to the pain, without any warning
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dark shadows under the eyes
  • Your child may look pale or alternatively very flushed
  • Queasiness
  • Headache
  • Sickness
  • Anorexia
  • Sensitivity To Light and Sound
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Bloating
  • Pale skin
  • Frequent yawning
  • Drowsiness

Unfortunately, despite a very detailed list of symptom-based guidelines for their diagnosis, many abdominal migraines remain underdiagnosed (Headache. The Journal of Head and Face Pain).

Why Are Abdominal Migraines Called ‘Migraines’ – They Aren’t Even Headaches?

Abdominal migraines are named as such because they have a number of key similarities shared with traditional migraines. These similarities can be summed up in 3 main areas –


Abdominal migraines are generally triggered by the same things as traditional migraine headaches. These triggers typically include processed meats, chocolate or foods containing MSG (Monosodium Glutamate). We check abdominal migraine triggers for more detail (INTERNAL LINK)

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It has been discovered that if you or your family have a predisposition to suffering with migraines, then your children are more likely to get abdominal migraines.


If you suffer with abdominal migraines as a child, you are significantly more likely to then develop migraine headaches as an adult.

How Prevalent Are Abdominal Migraines?

Along with constipation, abdominal migraines are one of the most common reasons for your child to be suffering with extreme abdominal pains (The Journal of Paediatrics)

Estimates vary as to the actual frequency of abdominal migraines with various studies estimating the number of sufferers at between 1-4% of children.

Diagnosing Abdominal Migraines

Diagnosing abdominal migraines is not easy – partly because it can be difficult for children to relay their symptoms accurately.

In the first instance, your doctor is likely to examine your family history, looking for evidence of migraine headaches as a clue.

Then they will have to try and rule out other abdominal conditions such as stomach flu or just normal stomach aches.

Finally, your doctor is likely to view the specific list of abdominal migraine symptoms to see how closely they match up, before reaching their final diagnosis.

Typical criteria that they will be measuring your child against will include –

  • Minimum of 5 abdominal pain ‘attacks’ lasting from 1 to 72 hours in length
  • At least 2 of the following symptoms – nausea, vomiting, appetite loss and pale skin
  • Moderate/ severe pain around the child’s centre (belly button) – not present down their sides
  • No evidence of other potential GI problems or a kidney disease

It is possible finally, that your doctor may ask to use an ultrasound or an endoscopy.

This will not reveal the presence of abdominal migraines, but can do a great job of ruling out other potential causes for your child’s stomach pain.

Why Are Abdominal Migraines Important?

Abdominal migraines have no cure as such, but typically stop as your child gets older. As a result, there can be a tendency in outsiders whose children are not crying out in pain, to think they are exaggerated – just the result of a child over-emphasizing their symptoms.

However, the intense pain caused by abdominal migraines is certainly not exaggerated. Furthermore, if not treated properly they can cause long-term damage at a particularly crucial time in your child’s development.

Missed school and social withdrawal are just two of the key costs of abdominal migraines that may not always be easy to just make up later in childhood.

Furthermore, poor treatment of abdominal migraines as a child is much more likely to lead to migraine headaches developing as an adult. Not a burden anyone wants in life.

The Final Word –

Abdominal migraines may be the least well known of migraines, but they can have a huge impact on the children that suffer with them.

To counter their effect you need to know what is an abdominal migraine and recognise the common symptoms associated with them. Hopefully this article has succeeded in helping with that. The next stages are to understand the causes, triggers and then the best treatments.

You will then be in a much stronger position to combat the symptoms and alter the outcomes by treating your child’s abdominal migraine.

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References Used –

1. Jyoti Mani and Shailender Madani. (April 2018). Pediatric abdominal migraine: current perspectives on a lesser known entity. Paediatric Health, Medicine and Therapeutics.
2. Laura Carson, Donald Lewis, Marc Tsou, Erin McGuire, Brooke Surran, Crystal Miller and Thuy-Anh Vu. (March 2011). Abdominal Migraine: An Under‐Diagnosed Cause of Recurrent Abdominal Pain in Children. Headache. The Journal of Head and Face Pain.
3. Meredith L.Lewis BS. Olafur S.Palsson PsyD, William E.Whitehead PhD, Miranda A.L.van Tilburg PhD. (April 2016). Prevalence of Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders in Children and Adolescents. The Journal of Paediatrics

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