Unique treatment to treat childhood migraines doesn't use drugs

A treatment at Seattle Children's Hospital teaches kids to get their headaches under control without using drugs.

There is no worse feeling for a parent than watching their child in pain. For kids with chronic migraines, relief is not easy to find. But one doctor at Seattle Children's Hospital says a medically proven therapy is helping kids in a way some might find unique.

It's called cognitive behavioral therapy -- a relatively underused treatment for migraines that doesn't include drugs. It's been so helpful for 15-year-old Tyler Stewart that he's gone from missing more than 50 days of school to his best GPA ever. Tyler has suffered from migraines his whole life after he was diagnosed in kindergarten. His triggers are sugar and stress.

"When I don't have stress, that's a trigger, I feel fine and that makes me be able to go to school and makes me able to do sports and makes me able to do everything I can do," said Tyler. He says relaxation is one of many techniques in what he calls his "migraine tool box."

Tyler's mother says they turned to Seattle Children's Pain Clinic for help after years of pain and taking medications. That's where they were introduced to behavioral cognitive therapy. It includes a variety of therapies traditionally used for mental health conditions including biofeedback -- a technique you can use to learn to control your body's functions such as your heart rate. Those techniques have been adapted to help kids with migraines cope and control their pain.

"Chronic pain is not a fixed signal in your body. You actually can control by helping your body to relax by changing how you think about your pain, changing how you behave around your pain problem," said Dr. Emily Law, who has been treating Tyler.

Law says chronic migraines are under-recognized and under-treated. She believes, through coping techniques, kids can continue daily activities and avoid becoming isolated. She admits because the treatment has roots in mental health, some people are skeptical. Law is trying to break through that stigma to raise awareness about, what she calls, a medically proven technique to battle migraines.

"I always will tell families that you are not meeting with a pain psychologist because we think you're crazy or we think your pain is made up. You are seeing me because chronic pain is hard to cope with. It's getting in the way with the things you want to do," said Law.

Tyler's mother admits she was unsure when she first heard about the treatment but now offers this advice to other parents.

"Don't give up because you don't know what's going to be out there to help you child and some of the strangest, kookiest things you hear might be able to help your child and completely make your life better," said Kelly Stewart.

This treatment has been so successful that Law has received a grant from the National Institute of Health to improve access to treatments. She and another doctor have even co-authored a book on the therapy.

As for Tyler, he's gone from having migraines once a day to once every two to three weeks.


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