In the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), sick or premature babies receive the specialized medical care that they need to go home healthy. But while in the NICU, babies often require painful or stressful medical procedures, such as heel sticks, placement of feeding tubes, or surgery. According to researchers from Princeton University and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, these stressful medical procedures in the NICU could predispose kids who develop migraines later in childhood to have more severe symptoms.
Researchers examined the medical charts of 280 5- to 21-year-olds who had visited the medical school's neurology department for treatment of migraines. They looked at whether the child had been born prematurely, had spent time in the NICU, and had a family history of migraines. They also noted when the migraines began, their severity, how often they occurred, and how much pain medication each child was prescribed.
Spending time in the NICU after birth was significantly associated with the amount of pain medication prescribed for children with migraines. Kids who'd stayed in the NICU needed significantly more daily pain medicines for migraines than children with migraines who didn't stay in the NICU after birth. In addition, children who stayed in the NICU at birth tended to develop migraines at an earlier age.
Based on the results of other research studies, the authors speculate that early painful experiences - such as placement of catheters, surgeries, or other medical procedures often performed in the NICU - can change a baby's neurological pathways, which can lead to increased sensitivity to pain later in childhood.
What This Means to You
According to the results of this small study, children with migraines who spent time in the NICU after birth may be at greater risk for having more severe symptoms from migraine than children with migraines who didn't stay in the NICU. Although you can't change whether your child received NICU care, you can be on the lookout for indications that he or she is having painful headaches and seek prompt treatment. Symptoms of migraines in kids and teens include severe and throbbing head pain, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and smell. If your child has severe or frequent headaches or pain, talk to your child's doctor.
Source: Seetha B. Maneyapanda, BA; Anuradha Venkatasubramanian, MD; Pediatrics, October 2005.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: November 2005