Sometimes, life can be a headache for us—and for our children, too. Not getting enough sleep at a slumber party, skipping meals, too much homework all can result in headaches in children. Headaches affect approximately sixty percent of children, and are more common during adolescence. They occur as a sole complaint or as one of the symptoms in an illness, such as the flu or strep throat. Less common are recurrent headaches in children, of which the three most common causes are tension (stress), migraine, and organic headaches. In addition, headaches can accompany ear infections, flu, dental cavities, and can be triggered as an adverse effect from a medication. Nausea is a common symptom with many headaches, as well as irritability, tender teeth, and sensitivity to light, noise, and motion.
Tension headaches originate from tight muscles surrounding the head and back of the neck and are more common in adolescents than younger children. Stresses from school, anxiety, and poor posture are common causes of tension headaches in school-aged children. Often, tension headaches come on during school or after school, and are less common on the weekends. The pain is not throbbing or pounding like a migraine, and may be localized in the front of the head. There is usually no nausea or vomiting.
In children, migraine headaches affect one in twelve children. In adolescents, migraines are more common in girls, and before puberty, more often affect boys. Migraine sufferers usually have a strong family history of the condition. Common triggers include lack of sleep, skipping meals, flashing lights from video games or television, and food products such as chocolate, nuts, caffeine, cheese, processed meats like hot dogs, additives in processed meats (nitrates), MSG, and alcohol. Menstruation can also trigger migraines. Migraines symptoms are caused by the dilation or constriction of blood vessels in and around the head, and for this reason are considered vascular headaches. Migraines can be preceded by a visual aura, throbbing or pounding sensations, and may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and stomachache. The child can often pinpoint the location of the headache and feels better with sleep.
The rarest and most serious headaches are the organic headaches, which originate from illnesses like meningitis, encephalitis, abscess, bleeding after an injury, and brain tumors. In many of these conditions, the headache is caused by increasing pressure in the skull. For this reason, these headaches are worsened by activities that “strain the brain” (increase the pressure), such as coughing and sneezing. The headaches may waken the child during sleep and be accompanied by vomiting. In contrast to a migraine, the pain is more generalized. Sometimes the child may experience loss in vision, change in alertness, tingling feelings, and seizures. Any reason to believe your child may be suffering from this type of headache would be reason to see your practitioner.