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Children And Headaches

When you think about someone having a headache, you probably think of an adult. But many kids have headaches, too, and for some of the very same reasons that adults have them.

By the time they reach high school, most young people have experienced some type of headache. Fortunately, less than 5% of headaches are the result of serious disease or organic problems, such as a tumor, abscess or head trauma.

Most headaches are tension-type, the result of good and bad stress, sleep issues, or, in a few instances, environmental or food triggers. About 5% of chronic headaches will be diagnosed as migraine.

Chronic or frequent headaches can be tough to handle — and are even harder to understand when you are young — especially if you do not know anyone else who has them.

One of the most frustrating aspects of chronic headaches is the stress factor. Avoiding a known trigger is usually easier than avoiding stress. Young people want to do well on tests and in school, and they want to attend important events. But anticipating a math quiz or musical recital, or eagerly looking forward to a party or being in the school play, can result in anxiety or excitement. And, for some kids, this leads to a headache.

If a child who has only had an occasional headache (once or twice a month) starts experiencing them more frequently (two, three or four times a week), then these should be considered chronic and medical attention should be sought as soon as possible.

The more school health professionals and educators, as well as parents, know about children and headaches — their triggers, symptoms, prevention, and treatments — the easier it will be to identify them and help kids live with them for full and rewarding lives.

Migraine Headaches

Most kids who have migraines have inherited them. Children who experience car or motion sickness, especially if there is a family history of migraine, will often develop migraines later.

Approximately 5% of kids experiencing chronic headaches will be diagnosed with migraines, and some children have them as early as four years old. By junior high school, most boys who have migraines will outgrow them; on the other hand, migraine frequency usually increases in teenage girls due to hormonal changes.

Migraine is frequently referred to as a vascular headache, because when a migraine occurs, it is the result of blood vessels either constricting or narrowing (vasoconstriction), or expanding or dilating (vasodilation).

Vasoconstriction does not produce pain, but it can temporarily affect vision or balance. When the blood vessels dilate, however, their expansion causes the painful part of the migraine, the headache, and can result in decreased appetite, nausea, and possible vomiting.

In adults, migraine's throbbing head pain usually occurs on one side of the head, but in children it can affect both sides. The migraine is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, dizziness, blurred vision, sensitivity to light and sound, and changes in temperament and personality. A headache's duration varies from individual to individual. But, generally, unlike an adult's migraine, which can continue up to four days, a child's migraine might be as short as one hour or may last for a day or so.

About 15% of kids experience a migraine headache with an "aura." A typical aura is blurred vision, or seeing colored or flashing lights, blind spots or wavy lines. An aura alerts a migraine sufferer to the onset of a headache, warning the kid several minutes before the pain starts.

A small percentage of migraine sufferers also encounter temporary motor weakness: they may lose their sense of coordination, may stumble, or may have trouble expressing themselves.

For most kids, their migraines are due to a family history. In some cases, there are specific triggers. Among the most commonly recognized ones are: good and bad stress, a change in routine or sleep pattern, bright lights or loud noises or certain foods and beverages.

After a formal diagnosis, a doctor's goal is to help reduce or eliminate the symptoms of a migraine and prevent future attacks.

Tension-Type Headaches

Of the approximate 20% of children who experience chronic (daily or almost daily) headaches, most (about 15%) are suffering from tension-type headaches, not migraine headaches. There are two versions of the tension-type headache, episodic and chronic. The episodic headache can occur several times a month, while a chronic headache can occur almost every day.

Episodic tension-type headaches produce a moderate pain, sometimes described as a pressure or band around the head. Episodic headaches often occur in the middle of the day, begin gradually and can last from 30 minutes to all day.

Chronic tension-type headaches, on the other hand, seem to be always present. They usually produce a dull throbbing around the front, top and sides of the head, the constricting band sensation, aches and soreness. Some kids will be bothered by sleepless nights and will awaken before they want to.

A child's tension-type headache is frequently caused by stress related to family, school or schoolmates, or friends, depression, or insufficient rest. Tension-type headaches do not have the hereditary factor that migraines do, and they are not caused by organic problems or serious diseases.

It is important for kids, their parents and school health care professionals to learn to identify the stressful situations or events that trigger tension-type headaches. Once the triggers are identified, adults can help the child develop ways to cope, or can help either eliminate or reduce some stressful activities.

The first step toward effective treatment is a correct diagnosis by your child's pediatrician or family physician.

Reprinted from the website of the National Headache Foundations

Last updated April 11, 2012