Few things are worse than seeing your children in pain. If they have a scrape on their knee, it’s easy to clean it gently, bandage the knee, and give them a kiss. Usually that’s enough. But what about headaches in children? These can be harder to make “all better.” Children can experience headaches that are mild and acute to chronic and severe. Here we discuss common causes of headaches in children (including risk factors), along with ways to help prevent and ease a headache.
Headaches in children: Causes
In both adults and children, dehydration is one of the most common causes of headache. For children, though, dehydration can happen more quickly, as they tend to be more active in many cases than adults. Even when asleep we lose water through our pores. When the body is not adequately hydrated, the brain tissue loses water and shrinks, pulling away from the skull and causing pain. This can happen much more quickly in the summer, especially when children are active in water. We forget that it is possible to sweat in a pool, and because we are surrounded by water it’s easy to neglect proper hydration.
We think of childhood as being a largely stress-free time, and in many ways this is true. But what we don’t think about is that children are not as capable at dealing with stress and taking care of themselves as adults are. A seemingly small negative event can have a huge impact on a child, and stress can lead to a headache. Childhood stress is not insignificant these days. Children have the pressure of high-stakes testing at school and ultra-competitive year-round athletic leagues. They may be overscheduled and may have no time to free play or simply sit. This stress can be cumulative, resulting in tight shoulders and neck and, eventually, headaches.
Lack of sleep
Lack of sleep is strongly correlated with a poor stress response, even in children. Growing bodies need more sleep than one might believe, from ten to 12 hours a day from ages three to 12 to a minimum of eight hours for teens 13 to 18. Add afterschool sports, extracurricular activities, and excessive amounts of homework to ever-earlier school start times for kids as they grow older and you have a recipe for sleep deprivation. The body clock of teenagers changes during this time, too, so that they are biologically incapable of winding down until around eleven at night. If they have a hard time falling asleep and an early wake-up, this lack of sleep may cause headaches in children later in the day.
Skipping meals or not getting adequate nutrition can be a headache trigger. Some children may be sensitive to additives and preservatives in food, or there may be a mild allergy to a particular food that manifests as a headache. Low blood sugar in its most severe form is called hypoglycemia and can lead to extreme fatigue, severe headache, dizziness, and fainting.
Straining to see what’s written on the board or struggling with reading blurry print up close can lead to headaches. Changes in vision can happen quickly as children grow, and you may not be aware of any problems until the headaches start.
The chances of developing severe headaches or chronic migraine increases in children if a family member also suffers from headache. One type of severe migraine in particular, familial hemiplegic migraine, has a strong genetic component. This migraine is generally preceded by an “aura” or sensitivity to light and can be accompanied by nausea, dizziness, and extreme pain behind the eyes. Familial hemiplegic migraine is an unusually intense form of migraine that can last several days.
Prevent and treat headaches in children
You cannot change your genetics, but here are ten ways to prevent and treat headaches in children, with the last few focusing on stress management:
- Remind your children to hydrate. Drink a glass of water every hour during play or more frequently if it is hot outside or they get thirsty. Set a timer if you need a reminder, and drink one yourself!
- Eat juicy fruits to add hydration. Especially in the summer, a thick slice of juicy watermelon can be a sweet, hydrating treat.
- Avoid processed foods. Many snack foods have chemical preservatives that can trigger headaches. Stay away from foods from a bag or a box and offer your kids snacks like ants-on-a-log, cheese and crackers, cut up vegetables, or fruit.
- Turn off the screens. Turn off all electronics two hours prior to bedtime to help your children’s brains adjust to bedtime. Even your teens.
- Clean up the bedroom. Just as with adults, children will sleep better in a clean, uncluttered room. Get rid of unnecessary clutter on the nightstand, and clean up toys as part of a bedtime ritual.
- Drink warm milk or chamomile tea before bed. These two beverages help naturally relax and soothe. Plus, adding these to a nighttime ritual signals to the body that it’s time to relax.
- Make sure the mattress is still conducive to restful sleep. We often neglect our child’s mattress, figuring that it will grow with them, but sometimes that’s not the case. Make sure there are no sags, poking springs, or uncomfortable places.
- Cut out an activity. Children of all ages need unstructured free time to unwind, explore, create, and imagine. If your kids are running from dawn ‘til dusk, chances are good that will catch up with them as stress. They may complain of boredom at first, but eventually they will figure out how to amuse themselves.
- Get outside. Exercise is a great way to beat stress, and time in nature is a proven mood booster. This can be a healthy part of unstructured free time, too. Go for a walk or play in the park.
- Know your family history. Take the time to share your family history during your child’s annual wellness exam, and make sure that an annual vision test is part of the exam. If there is no history of migraine or headache, that’s great news, but if there is, forewarned is forearmed.
Bonus tip: Keep an open dialogue with your kids and model appropriate ways to deal with any stress or conflict they may encounter. Let them know that it’s okay to step back and take care of themselves when they need to, and encourage them to come to you for help if something is troubling them. Many times children will worry about adding stress to their parents or making them worried. Let your children know that you are always there to talk to.
When your child does get a headache, providing them with over-the-counter analgesics usually does the trick. If the headache persists or increases in severity for three days in a week, a trip to the doctor is advised.
Do your children suffer from headaches? What treatment works best for them?
Image by Hebe Aguilera via Flickr