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Children’s Art: A Useful Tool in Headache Treatment

Accurate diagnosis is key to headache treatment, but arriving at such a diagnosis can be particularly challenging for health care professionals who work with young patients.

At Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, pediatric neurologist Carl Stafstrom, MD, has turned to art to help in the process, encouraging his young patients to draw pictures of how they see their headaches, relying on images when words fail.

A recent article from the center detailed the work of Dr. Stafstrom and the children he treats.

In one picture, a horse might be kicking the side of the patient’s head, while a high heel shoe penetrates the skull in another. Dr. Stafstrom says hammers often show up in the children’s pictures, as do jackhammers, anvils, chisels, frying pans, and freight trains. One young migraineur drew a drummer inside his head.

See some examples of the pictures.

More than a decade ago, Dr. Stafstrom was involved in a study that illustrated just how accurate those drawings can be. He sent more than 200 of his patients’ pictures to other pediatric neurologists and asked them, based on the pictures alone, to categorize the headaches depicted as migraine or non-migraine. When he compared their responses with the children’s clinical diagnoses, he found that the drawings provided accurate enough images of migraine symptoms, such as pounding pain or photophobia, to predict the clinical diagnosis of migraine more than 87% of the time.

Dr. Stafstrom then conducted another study and determined that patients’ drawings can be used to track their headaches over time and the effectiveness of treatment.

“Children’s drawings are a powerful adjunct for the diagnosis of headache type,” Dr. Stafstrom concluded in the Johns Hopkins article. “The technique is simple, inexpensive, and enjoyable for children, and you don’t need a government grant to do this project.”

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