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Migraines a Problem for Harry Potter and Others August 15, 2007

Like children around the world, many Central Texas youngsters have been glued to the final issue of the Harry Potter series along with several adults we know.

It's likely a surprising number of local Muggles (non-wizards) have something in common with their wizard hero: They suffer from migraine headaches, says a report in the medical journal Headache.

The report shows that one in 20 Muggle children and teens suffers from migraines - many of them, like Harry's, undiagnosed.

To raise awareness of this concern, the American and British authors of the study decided to compare Harry's symptoms with what is known about Muggle migraines.

Migraine Commonly Starts in Teens.

Hallie Thomas, a 17-year-old high school graduate from Monroe, Conn., was the senior author on the research. She is a Harry Potter fan and also a migraine sufferer.

For the study, she re-read all six Harry Potter volumes published to date, highlighting the passages where he had a headache.

Those were passed on to the study's other two authors: Dr. Fred Sheftell, president-elect of the American Headache Society, and Timothy J. Steiner, chairman of the World Health Organization Global Campaign to Reduce the Burden of Headache Worldwide.

They then tried to match the references to the description of migraine in the International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd edition (ICHD-II ).

Granted, this is a Muggle book, but the study authors noted that they had no access to wizard systems of headache classification.

The Harry Potter books abound with descriptions that Muggle migraine sufferers will relate to:

And there is more.

Harry was 11 when his headaches started. More than half of the 28 million Americans who suffer from these debilitating headaches start getting them as children or teens. Hallie Thomas recalls getting migraines since "I was really little."

In fact, Harry's horrible headaches meet all but one of the ICHD-II criteria for migraine.

They include pain often but not always on one side of the head (Harry's headaches originate in the lightning-shaped scar on the side of his forehead); nausea and vomiting (see book reference above to retching); and disabling pain (see reference to wand slipping).

The only criterion Harry does not meet is the duration of the headache. Harry's headaches usually last only a few minutes, while Muggle migraines can endure for hours. But wizards recuperate quickly from illness and injury, the study authors point out. "Harry's quick recovery could be due to his magical powers," says Dr. Sheftell.

Harry Potter Readers Know his Pain.

Regardless, because of the one missing criterion, the authors give Harry the diagnosis of "probable migraine." Hallie agrees that "maybe" Harry Potter is getting migraines. "He talks about searing pain, and sometimes he can't see and stuff," she says. She adds that she sometimes cannot go out in the sun because her migraines are so excruciating.

According to the study authors, Muggle children and teens with frequent headaches should first be seen by their primary-care physician (Harry saw Madame Pomfrey in the Hogwarts infirmary). If their headaches persist, they should be seen by a specialist.

Treatment programs do not have to include medication and can rely instead on stress management, getting proper sleep, and exercise and avoiding triggers.

Unlike Harry Potter, most Muggle children are not charged with saving the world by fighting the evil Lord Voldemort. But parents can save Muggle children a lot of pain by talking to their physician if they develop symptoms.

More Migraine Information

Although there is general agreement among healthcare providers and researchers that a key element in migraines is blood flow changes in the brain, the exact cause of migraine headaches remains unknown.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), one theory of how a migraine happens is that the nervous system responds to a trigger by creating a spasm in the nerve-rich arteries at the base of the brain. The spasm closes down or constricts several arteries supplying blood to the brain, including the scalp artery and the carotid (neck) arteries. When the arteries constrict, blood flow to the brain is reduced.

At the same time, blood-clotting particles, called platelets, clump together in a process that is believed to release a chemical called serotonin - which acts as a powerful constrictor of arteries and further reduces the blood supply to the brain. When reduced blood flow decreases the brain's supply of oxygen, symptoms signaling a headache, such as distorted vision or speech, may result.

Reacting to the reduced oxygen supply, certain arteries within the brain open wider, or dilate, to meet the brain's needs. The dilation spreads, finally affecting the neck and scalp arteries. Dilation of these arteries triggers the release of pain-producing substances, called prostaglandins, from various tissues and blood cells. Chemicals that cause inflammation and swelling, and substances that increase sensitivity to pain, are also released.

The circulation of these chemicals and the dilation of the scalp arteries stimulate the pain-sensitive nociceptors. The result, according to this theory, is a throbbing pain in the head. People who get migraine headaches seem to have blood vessels that overreact. Some triggers of a migraine may include the following:

NOTE: This story was adapted from material sent to us by the developer of the Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas Health Encyclopedia which includes a discussion of migraines . Additional information is available from the Health Encyclopedia .

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