Managing Kids’ Headaches: What Parents Should Know
If your child misses school or other activites due to headaches, it makes sense to educate yourself about the causes, treatment options and lifestyle modifications that can help your child of any age manage the symptoms and get back to the business of growing up.
According to the National Headache Foundation, 20% of school-aged children in the United States experience headaches. Many of these headaches are severe enough to interfere with a child’s normal routine. Here's how to help your child manage the symptoms so she can get back to the business of growing up.
Types of Headaches
When kids have frequent headaches, they usually fall into one of two categories: tension headaches and migraines.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache in children, and can be caused by a number of factors, including stress, environmental factors, foods, or lack of sleep. The symptoms, which include a pain in both sides of the head, are generally mild and respond well to over-the-counter pain relievers. Most tensions headache usually last anywhere from 30 minutes to an entire day.
Migraines are a more debilitating type of headache that often runs in families. In fact, the Migraine Research Foundation reports that if one parent suffers from migraines, there is a 40% chance the child will also have them. When both parents have migraines, the risk goes up to 90% that the child will have them, too.
Migraine Symptoms in Children
Migraines cause a throbbing, pounding, or pulsating pain that typically worsens with activity or exercise. Light and sound can also make the symptoms worse. Migraine sufferers often experience abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting.
A migraine can be short-term, lasting just an hour, or could continue all day. In addition, some children may be prone to chronic (daily) headaches, which are defined as headaches that occur 15 days a month over a period of 3 months. These can vary in intensity but often include migraine-like pain and intensity.
In early childhood, migraines affect boys more often than girls, but after puberty (which occurs around age 12), hormonal changes in females cause headaches to become about twice as common in girls than in boys, according to the National Headache Foundation.
Severe headaches occasionally affect infants and very young children but this is more likely when there is a fmaily history of headaches or migraines. In babies and toddlers who can't express their pain verbally, look for signs like unexplained crying and holding or bagning the head.
Migraines triggers can vary, including stress, irregular meal times or skipped meals, excess caffeine, additives in food, not enough sleep, and menstruation, among other things.
Children who have migraines miss school twice as often as their counterparts, according to the Migraine Research Association. This can cause stress and can also lead to social isolation, making it important that parents reach out to your pediatrician to have headaches diagnosed and to come up with a treatment plan so that your child’s quality of life is not compromised.
The majority of headaches are not serious and can be managed with a combination of medication and complementary treatment approaches to address migraine symptoms once they present or better yet, to prevent them in the first place.
Medication Options: Tension headaches and migraines are often treated with the same types of medications that adults use, just in smaller doses. Some of the common pharmacological (medication) treatments for kids’ headaches include over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Mortin or Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and naprozen sodium (Aleve).
(Note that the American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] recommends that anyone younger than 19 avoid aspirin and aspirin-related products when they are ill with a fever because of the risk of contracting a serious condition called Reye syndrome.)
While these types of treatments are often enough for tension headaches, migraines sometimes require a more aggressive approach to managing the pain and also controlling the nausea, as well.
While more than 100 medications are available today to treat migraines, the Migraine Research Foundation points out that none are specifically approved for children. Nonetheless, many have been studied and are frequently used in proper dosing under the guidance of a physician for young migraine sufferers.
These include triptans, ergot preparations, and NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Antiemetics are also sometimes used to help control related nausea.
With most children’s headaches, the goal is to use abortive treatment (meaning treatment to stop the headache once mild symptoms present before it gets worse) rather than having young people rely on daily preventive medications.
When debilitating headaches occur three or four times a month, then your child’s doctor may to explore preventive medications such as anticonvulsants, antidepressants, antihistamines, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and NSAIDs.
It’s important to know that when treating kids’ headaches, it’s possible to experience a “rebound” effect from immediate relief medications. Commonly used treatments in kids, including acetaminophen and NSAIDs, if taken frequently (usually more than twice a week) can cause headache symptoms to reoccur when you stop taking them. Therefore, it’s important to stay in close touch with the pediatrician to avoid this issue.
Non-Medication Options: Both tension headaches and migraines can also be managed with non-pharmacological (non-medication) approaches and lifestyle modifications. In fact, experts are increasingly recommending that parents and children try these alternative approaches to preventing headaches or at least managing the symptoms.
This includes simple practices such as eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep, as well as treating a headache by resting in a quiet, darkened room without screens (computer, phone, and television).
In addition, many people experience relief by incorporating complementary treatments like biofeedback and relaxation techniques. These techniques can often be performed with the guidance of a psychotherapist. In fact, there is a growing trend toward involving behavioral therapy in headache treatment strategies.
Biofeedback is one technique that can be guided by a therapist. This approach uses sensors to measure your child’s physical changes that occur with tension (like heart rate and blood pressure) and it offers feedback to help her identify tension triggers and learn ways to better manage stress through a range of relaxation exercises, like deep breathing and visualization to control the body’s response and try to keep headaches at bay.
In addition, a psychotherapist can help your child identify areas of stress that might trigger headaches and can teach her some essential coping strategies to head off headaches or at least better manage the pain.
Some physicians also recommend that children (or their parents) keep a headache diary of symptoms and treatment approaches to track frequency of symptoms and to help identify triggers, patterns, and treatments that are effective. This information should be shared with the pediatrician.
Getting Headaches Under Control
With so many behavioral, llifestyle, and pharmacological options that exist today, the bottom line is that with a little planning, education, and support, you can help your child manage her headaches and keep them under control. This will allow her to participate in her normal activities without letting pain get in her way.