|Oh, my aching head!
Author: Dr. Wendy Anderson-Willis
How many times has your child said, “Mom, I’ve got a headache?” It’s not just adults who get headaches; we’re actually seeing more and more children who complain of these types of problems as well. The two types of headaches that we see most commonly in children are tension headaches and migraines.
Causes of headaches
It’s important to watch out for headache triggers. Sickness is one of the most obvious times when a child can experience pain, but there are several possible causes:
• Stress, crying
• Skipping meals
• Sleep problems
• Vision changes, not wearing glasses or overuse of contact lenses
• Menstrual cycles in girls
• Congestion from allergies
Other triggers can be environmentally based. Children who consume artificial sweeteners, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and caffeine (also caffeine withdrawal) can suffer from headaches. Certain kinds of cheese, loud music and long car trips can also be triggers. To make matters worse, children can suffer from a “rebound headache” from the overuse of pain relief medication.
Eating a healthy snack, drinking some water and then resting in a dark and quiet room are good first steps. Sleep is very important in headache relief and this will often help the symptoms go away.
Sometimes headaches do not respond to sleep, so an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be helpful. If you give your child an over-the-counter medication, make sure it is not aspirin. Children under 18 years of age are at risk for developing Reye’s syndrome when consuming aspirin, and, according to Mayo Clinic, “Reye’s syndrome is a serious condition that causes swelling in the liver and brain.”
The biggest thing I suggest to parents is to track how often their child complains of a headache. If it is mild and less than once a month, treatment at home is the best option. If headaches are happening more than once a month or are severe, it’s time to see a doctor.
Your doctor should inquire about frequency and possible triggers. I always ask the child what his or her typical day looks like, so I can get a sense of what is going on that may lead to headaches. I look for whether he or she regularly skips meals or is consuming too much caffeine, is sleeping at night and drinking fluids throughout the day.
Keeping a “headache diary” will be very helpful to the doctor; log everything from when things start, what your child ate and drank that day, the severity of pain and what treatments were administered.
A word of caution
If your child has any of the following symptoms, it is important to see a doctor right away to rule out anything more serious:
• Neck pain/stiffness
• Vision changes
• Head injury
• Loss of consciousness
• A headache that is present when waking up
• If the headache fails to resolve with sleep
Most headaches aren’t signs of a severe illness, but occasionally headaches are caused by more serious medical conditions. Bottom line for parents: if your son or daughter has frequent headaches, you can do more than simply surrender to the condition or manage the symptoms.
One of the best ways to treat headaches in children is to stop them before they start. Work to see if you and your child’s doctor can identify the causes and find a solution.
Dr. Wendy Anderson-Willis is a pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. She provides outreach services in underserved areas around Columbus on Nationwide Children’s Hospital Mobile Care Unit and patient care at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Primary Care Centers.