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Study Suggests Colic May Be Precursor to Migraines

February 20, 2012
News Office: Jason Bardi (415) 502-6397

A study of mothers and their young babies by neurologists at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) has shown that mothers who suffer migraine headaches are more than twice as likely to have babies with colic than mothers without a history of migraines.

The work raises the question of whether colic may be an early symptom of migraine and therefore whether reducing stimulation may help just as reducing light and noise can alleviate migraine pain. That is significant because excessive crying is one of the most common triggers for shaken baby syndrome, which can cause death, brain damage and severe disability.

"If we can understand what is making the babies cry, we may be able to protect them from this very dangerous outcome," said Dr. Amy Gelfand, a child neurologist with the Headache Center at UCSF who will present the findings at the American Academy of Neurology's 64th Annual Meeting, which takes place in New Orleans in April.

Colic, or excessive crying in an otherwise healthy infant, has long been associated with gastrointestinal problems — presumably caused by something the baby ate. However, despite more than 50 years of research, no definitive link has been proven between infant colic and gastrointestinal problems. Babies who are fed solely breast milk are as likely to have colic as those fed formula, and giving colicky babies medication for gas does not help.

"We've known about colic for a really long time," Gelfand said, "but despite this fact, no one really knows why these babies are crying."

In the UCSF study, Gelfand and her colleagues surveyed 154 new mothers bringing their infants to the pediatrician for routine check-ups at two months, the age when colicky crying typically peaks. The mothers were surveyed about their babies' crying patterns and their own history of migraine, and those responses were analyzed to make sure the reported crying did indeed fit the clinical definition of colic.

Mothers who suffered migraines were found to be two-and-a-half times more likely to have colicky babies. Overall, 29 percent of infants whose mothers had migraines had colic compared to 11 percent of babies whose mothers did not have migraines.

Gelfand and her colleagues believe colic may be an early manifestation of a set of conditions known as childhood periodic syndromes, believed to be precursors to migraine headaches later in life.

Babies with colic may be more sensitive to stimuli in their environment just as are migraine sufferers. They may have more difficulty coping with the onslaught of new stimuli after birth as they are thrust from the dark, warm, muffled life inside the womb into a world that is bright, cold, noisy and filled with touchy hands and bouncy knees.

The UCSF team next plans to study a group of colicky babies over the course of their childhood to see if they develop other childhood periodic syndromes, such as abdominal migraine.

The presentation "Infant Colic is Associated with Maternal Migraine" by Amy Gelfand, Katherine Thomas and Dr. Peter Goadsby will be at 5 p.m., Wednesday, April 25 in New Orleans.

About UCSF Medical Center
UCSF Medical Center consistently ranks as one of the top 10 hospitals in the United States. Recognized for innovative treatments, advanced technology, collaboration among health care professionals and scientists, and a highly compassionate patient care team, UCSF Medical Center serves as the academic medical center of the University of California, San Francisco. The medical center's nationally preeminent programs include children's health, the brain and nervous system, organ transplantation, women's health and cancer. It operates as a self-supporting enterprise within UCSF and generates its own revenues to cover the operating costs of providing patient care.

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