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Headaches and Migraines

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Headaches are one of the most common childhood medical complaints and can make it difficult for kids to concentrate and to participate in daily activities. Though headaches often occur as a symptom of a larger medical problem like a fever, cold, stomachaches, etc., they can also occur due to physical and emotional stress. For instance, headaches can occur if children haven't been drinking enough water, haven't eaten a meal (especially breakfast), or haven't had enough sleep. Some headaches are caused by stress, worry and other emotional problems. Physical complaints such as headaches are one of the most frequent ways children, who do not yet have a sophisticated emotional vocabulary or well developed introspection skills, can let adults know that they have a problem.

girl with headacheMigraine headaches are very severe and include sharp stabbing or throbbing pains, nausea, vomiting, and light or sound sensitivity. Many different events have the potential to trigger the occurrence of a migraine in people who are vulnerable to these headaches. Migraine triggers vary and may include eating certain foods (e.g., caffeine, chocolate, ice cream, fatty meats), changing sleep patterns, changes in the weather or increased stress.

Parents should have children evaluated by a pediatrician if headaches become a regular even (occurring more than once a week), disrupt daily activities, or are associated with symptoms like vomiting or light and sound sensitivity. Doctors will often want to take a medical history and order laboratory blood tests or imaging tests (e.g., an MRI or CAT scan ) to rule out infections and other more serious medical problems of which headaches may be a symptom.

As much as is possible, parents should help headache-prone children to learn and practice preventative techniques that can help them keep headaches from occurring in the first place. For instance, it's important that children get plenty of sleep, drink enough water, and eat a healthy breakfast every morning. Parents can also help children to identify what particular events function as headache triggers and work out strategies for avoiding these triggers if that is possible. In addition, parents should talk with children about their worries and concerns if headaches seem to be related to their worries. Children dealing with behavioral or emotional problems associated with frequent headaches can be evaluated by a mental health professional specialized in the treatment of children's problems (e.g., a "child" psychiatrist or psychologist). This sort of professional will be in the best position to offer appropriate diagnostic and treatment guidance.

Routine (i.e., non-migraine headaches) headaches can be usually be treated by using an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen (e.g., Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (e.g, Advil®) in dosages appropriate for children's age and size (ask your physician if you aren't sure of the appropriate dose, as overdoses of acetaminophen in particular can be lethal!). Physical practices designed to relax or exercise the body may also help. Prescription medications may be necessary to treat migraine headaches.

 




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