Is Your Child’s Headache a Sign of Something Serious?
November 11, 2016
November 11, 2016
Headaches, or persistent pain anywhere in the head or neck, are very common in children. It is estimated that one in four teenagers experiences frequent or severe headaches. Very rarely are headaches a sign of a serious or life-threatening problem. But when is it important to contact your doctor?
Understanding Headaches in Children
Sometimes children experience headaches as a result of an infection like a cold or the flu. These are called secondary headaches. When headaches occur without any other illness, they are called primary headaches, and include:
- Tension-type headache — the most common type of headache, caused by stress or anxiety. The pain is mild to moderate, and feels like pressure.
- Migraine — severe and disabling headaches that can last for hours or days along with nausea, sensitivity to light, sensitivity to sound, and dizziness.
- Chronic migraine — frequent headaches (15 days per month or more) which occur for at least three months in a row. Often kids report they have a milder headache most of the time, and that the pain spikes up into a migraine on top of that pain.
- New daily persistent headache — chronic headaches that develop suddenly in children or teens with no past history of headaches.
- Post-traumatic headache — a headache that starts after a concussion and can produce symptoms similar to chronic migraine.
Managing Your Child’s Headaches
Your child’s headache can often be treated with over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, or modifying his or her lifestyle to help maintain a regular schedule with adequate time for eating, sleeping and exercising.
Children with chronic headaches often find it difficult to participate in normal activities. While it may feel impossible to go to school some days, they actually do better if they regularly attend. Staying home can worsen headaches by increasing stress from missed schoolwork and interfering with regular sleep schedules. The structure and social interactions of school can also help improve headache symptoms.
When to Contact the Doctor
If your child’s headaches become more frequent or severe, it’s time to see your pediatrician or family doctor. If necessary, you may be referred to a neurologist who has experience caring for children with headaches.
Testing and Diagnosis
During the initial evaluation, the neurologist may:
- Review your child’s medical history
- Discuss symptoms, including severity and frequency
- Conduct a physical examination of your child
- Discuss other factors that might be contributing to headaches, such as diet, fluid intake, sleep patterns, activity level and stress related to family, friends and schoolwork
- Discuss possible treatment options
Headaches can be difficult on both parents and children, but with proper care, your family can continue doing the things you enjoy...together.
Donna J. Stephenson, MD
Donna J. Stephenson, MD, is a pediatric neurologist with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Education: Medical School—Johns Hopkins University College of Medicine; Internship/Residency—University of California San Francisco; Fellowship—The Johns Hopkins Hospital.