Headaches in children

Pediatric headache is a very common complaint. But for some children, headaches can be extremely disabling. Pediatric Neurologist Diana Lebron, MD, specializes in pediatric headaches. She shares some important information below.

Studies suggest that headaches increase in frequency and duration as a child ages. Four percent of the adult population suffers from chronic daily headaches, and these patients often recall that the headaches began during childhood.

What causes a headache?

Head injuries, illnesses, infections, structural problems within the brain and medications can all potentially cause headaches. If an obvious reason is identified, then this is known as a secondary headache type. Addressing the obvious cause will stop this particular headache.

However, children can also experience a headache for no obvious reason. This is known as primary headaches. Migraines, tension type and cluster headaches are some examples of a primary headache.

Primary headaches are believed to be due to an over-excited pain pathway. Stress, dehydration, poor sleep and diet can potentially activate the pain pathway and trigger an attack. Children can experience both primary and secondary headache types at the same time. It is important to characterize each headache, as the treatment will depend on the specific headache type.

What’s the best treatment for a headache?

While there is no cure for primary headaches, medications and non-pharmacological treatments are available to improve quality of life. Over-the-counter medications such as Ibuprofen and Tylenol can help, but they do not always work for everyone. Two specific migraine medications have been recently approved by the FDA for children 6 years and older.

Some other non-pharmacological strategies that can help alleviate headache pain include:

  • Drinking non-caffeinated fluids
  • Eating small frequent meals rich with fruits/vegetables
  • Exercise
  • Achieving nine hours of good sleep a night

A small study recently published from a group in Israel suggested that children that chewed gum for an hour or more a day had frequent primary headaches. While this may not be true for everyone, the study suggests that eliminating gum from the diet may potentially reduce the frequency of attacks.

When should you be concerned about your child’s headaches?

If your child experiences episodic, chronic daily headaches (more than 15 headaches a month) or a persistent daily unremitting headache that interferes with school and social activities, then this should be discussed with your doctor.

Headaches due to fevers, stiff neck, confusion or weakness of an arm or a leg should be evaluated immediately as this could be due to something that requires immediate attention and treatment.

prevention, treatment