Kids Get Headaches Too
By adolescence, at least half of all kids have headaches, according to the National Headache Foundation. Luckily, very few headaches are caused by serious conditions, such as a tumor, an infection, or a head injury. Regardless, common headaches can be very painful and distracting.
Childhood Headache Tips for Parents
Pay Attention to a Headache
Although some kids will feign headaches or tummy aches to avoid things they don’t want to do (like go to school), most childhood headaches are real. Some children have migraines and others have tension-type headaches . Migraines are most likely inherited and can be triggered by stress, food, or environmental factors, such as noise or bright lights. Tension-type headaches are a response to stress or challenges at school, home, work, or among friends.
Find Headache Relief
Take your child to the pediatrician for help with headaches. Your child may need medication or changes in his daily routine, such as diet, exercise, and rest and relaxation. For example, a quiet, dimly lit room and an ice pack may help relieve tension-type headaches. For migraines, your pediatrician will look for foods, lights, or sounds that might trigger migraines. If over time, your pediatrician is not able to treat or manage the headaches, ask for a referral to a pediatric neurologist or headache specialist.
Take It Easy
Kids who get headaches can participate in most activities, but sometimes it will be best to just take it easy. If your child has headaches, try not to overcommit him to too many activities. Leave some time for rest and relaxation. Overall, kids who get headaches will benefit from balanced, nutritious meals (especially breakfast), regular sleep patterns (including a full night’s sleep), and exercise. Although exercise may help relieve tension, it may not be a good idea for your child to exert himself during a tension headache.
Tell Teachers and School Staff
Your child spends most of the day at school, so you need to make teachers and school staff aware of your child’s headaches. Have your pediatrician write a note explaining any medications and special instructions, such as rest or recovery periods. Make sure that your child is allowed to take his medication when needed. Migraines, for example, should be treated as soon as your child senses one coming on. Waiting until class ends is likely to lead to a much more severe migraine and a longer recovery period. Children with headaches may need to miss school, but if your child misses more than five days in one semester, you should seek further medical attention.
The Headache Diary
If your child has headaches, encourage him to keep a headache diary to help recognize when and why the headaches happen. Take this information to your child’s doctor because it will help to determine the cause of the headaches and create a treatment or prevention plan.
The National Headache Foundation suggests the following questions for your child’s headache diary:
- What does the headache feel like?
- Where is the pain located? How much does it hurt?
- Does your headache appear without warning or are there signs of it coming, such as weakness, nausea, dizziness, or sensitivity to light or noise?
- Do you see bright lights, blind spots, or changes in vision?
- Do headaches occur after eating certain foods or drinking certain beverages (eg, soft drinks with caffeine, pizza, or chocolate)?
- Do certain situations, events, or physical activity produce a headache?
- When do the headaches occur—once a week, twice a week, once a month?
- Does anyone else in your family have headaches?
When Is Further Evaluation Necessary?
Most headaches in children are due to migraine, muscle tension, or other benign causes and rarely need more evaluation than a careful history and physical examination. Headaches may, however, be a symptom of serious health problems and need further study. Every child’s headache needs to be evaluated individually. But, in general, the following symptoms justify further evaluation:
- Weakness, visual or speech difficulties, or a change in personality
- Vomiting in association with headaches
- Headaches that awaken a child in the morning
- Headaches associated with abnormal findings on a doctor’s physical exam
- Headaches in association with excessive urination or unusually early development of puberty (or failure to menstruate when expected)
- Headaches that worsen steadily in severity or frequency over days or weeks, change in a long-established pattern of headache, or the onset of a “worst ever” severe headache
- Headache associated with depression or anxiety (Further evaluation generally focuses on the anxiety or depression unless headaches meet one or more of the criteria above.)
American Academy of Pediatrics
National Headache Foundation
Headache Network Canada
Help for Headaches
Children's headaches: an informative guide for young sufferers, their parents, and school health professionals. National Headache Foundation website. Available at: http://www.headaches.org/educational_modules/childrensheadache/chhome.html. Accessed July 29, 2008.
Migraine headaches and treatment. National Headache Foundation website. Available at: http://www.headaches.org/educational_modules/childrensheadache/chhome.html. Accessed July 29, 2008.
Last reviewed June 2008 by Kari Kassir, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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