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When Should I Worry: Headaches

headaches in children

You’re not the only one who gets headaches – those nasty, inescapable bouts of cranial pain that make you feel like your temples are being squeezed together by a vice, or that a very small man with a much larger hammer is busy ringing a gong between your ears.

Unfortunately, headaches affect approximately 75% of school-aged children, including those as young as 4 years of age.

Tension headaches – which cause mild to moderate pain in and around the head and neck, and typically do not worsen with physical activity – are, by far, the most common headaches expressed by children. These are frequently caused by eye strain, stress, and/or posture.

However, approximately 5% of school-aged children younger than 12 get migraines, those throbbing, pounding, persistent aches that seem to consume the entire head.

Migraines can cause dizziness, nausea, and sensitivity to light, noise, and smells. Many afflicted with migraines, including children, also see halos of light, or auras. Unlike tension headaches, migraines can sometimes last for days, if not longer.

The good news is that most childhood headaches are not a sign of more severe illnesses or disorders. Still, many parents contact KinderMender’s physicians with one question: “When should I worry about headaches in my child?”

Headaches are believed to be the result of an alteration in chemicals, nerves, and/or blood vessels in the head and body, and the list of potential triggers for the condition – including migraines – is substantial:

  • Common cold
  • Infections (ear infection, sinusitis)
  • Sore throat
  • Medications
  • Stress
  • Diet
  • Dehydration
  • Head trauma
  • Eye strain (computer monitors, video games, etc.)
  • Loud noises
  • Scents
  • Physical activity
  • Change in schedule or sleep pattern
  • Excessive sun exposure
  • Hormone changes

While professionals are still not 100% sure what causes migraines, they do believe the condition can be hereditary. In fact, 7 out of 10 children who experience migraines have a parent who suffers the same.

So, “When should I worry about headaches?”

If your child exhibits any of the following symptoms, it is urgent that you consult a pediatric provider:

  • Vision loss
  • Vomiting
  • Muscle weakness
  • Migraines that cause a child to wake up
  • Pain in back of head (in younger children)
  • Headaches that reoccur monthly, or more frequently

For the most part, headaches in children can be treated successfully with rest, warmth, and OTC pain relievers. When giving your child Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen at home, do so with the first signs of the headache. One dose is typically advised by physicians. Aspirin should never be used, unless explicitly instructed by a doctor, as usage has been linked to Reyes Syndrome in children.

Additional home remedies include:

  • A hot bath or shower
  • Cold or warm compress administered to the neck
  • Resting with head elevated
  • For a migraine, lying down in a dark, quiet room with the blinds drawn

Occasionally, having something to eat and drink can quell symptoms, while vitamins B2, Magnesium, and Coenzyme Q10 have been shown to provide natural relief.

If a doctor’s visit is needed, a diagnosis can often be made following a thorough discussion regarding the precise location, duration, and severity of the pain, as well as the known triggers and remedies. If no further testing is recommended, your physician will likely suggest tracking symptoms with a headache diary, and will make suggestions regarding potential lifestyle changes, such as a modified sleep schedule, that may benefit your child.

Concerns? KinderMender has answers for the questions that worry you, and we can help your family navigate chronic headaches, as well. Stop by any one of our five locations to speak with one of our physicians.

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