The majority of headaches experienced by children and adolescents are not due to serious underlying problems. Both physical and emotional factors must be considered when evaluating headaches.
Headaches classified as primary indicate that the headache itself is the main medical problem, although underlying non-medical causes, such as muscle tension or foods, may be identified. Other contributing factors may include medications, dehydration, or changing levels of hormones. These factors that influence headaches are sometimes called headache triggers.
Causes of headaches in children
Headaches may be caused by a number of conditions, such as disorders of the neck, eyes, brain, jaw, or teeth. Headaches with an underlying medical condition are classified as secondary headaches because they are related to the condition. An example of this would be a headache due to neck injury or sinus infection.
Symptoms of headaches in children
The child may have varying degrees of symptoms associated with the severity of the headache depending on the type of headache. Some headaches may be more serious. Symptoms that may suggest a more serious underlying cause of the headache may include the following:
- a very young child with a headache
- a child that is awakened by the pain of a headache
- headaches that start very early in the morning
- pain that is worsened by strain, such as a cough
or a sneeze
- vomiting without nausea
- sudden onset of pain and the "worst headache" ever
- headache that is becoming more severe or continuous
- personality changes
- changes in vision
- weakness in the arms or legs
- seizures or epilepsy
The symptoms of a headache may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.
Treatment of headaches in children
Specific treatment for headaches will be determined by your child's physician based on:
- your child's age, overall health, and medical history
- type of headaches
- severity and frequency of the headaches
- your child's tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
- your opinion or preference
The ultimate goal of treatment is to stop headaches from occurring. Adequate headache management depends on the accurate identification of the type of headache and may include:
- avoiding known triggers, such as certain foods and beverages, lack of sleep, and fasting
- changing your child's eating habits
- resting in a quiet, dark environment
- medications, as recommended by your child's physician
- stress management
Migraine headaches may require specific medication management including:
- abortive medications-medications, prescribed by your child's physician, that act on specific receptors in blood vessels in the head and can stop a headache in progress.
- rescue medications-medications purchased over-the-counter, such as analgesics (pain relievers), to stop the headache.
- preventive medications-medications, prescribed by your child's physician, that are taken daily to reduce the onset of severe migraine headaches.
Some headaches may require immediate medical attention including hospitalization for observation, diagnostic testing, or even surgery. Treatment is individualized depending on the underlying condition causing the headache. Full recovery depends on the type of headache and other medical problems that may be present.