Kids, not just adults, get headaches. Luckily in children, few headaches are caused by serious conditions, such as a tumors, infections, or a head injury. Regardless, common headaches can be painful and distracting for children.
Childhood Headache Tips for Parents
Pay Attention to a Headache
Although some kids will pretend to have headaches or tummy aches to avoid things they don’t want to do, most childhood headaches are real. Some children have migraines and others have tension-type headaches. Migraines can be triggered by stress, food, or environmental factors, such as noise or bright lights. Tension-type headaches can be a response to stress or challenges at school, home, work, or among friends. They can even have them from allergies and sinus infections.
Find Headache Relief
Take your child to the doctor for help with headaches. Your child may need medication or changes in their daily routine, such as diet, exercise, and rest. If over time, your doctor is not able to treat or manage the headaches, ask for a referral to a pediatric neurologist or headache specialist.
Your child may also be referred to a therapist. Therapy may reduce the length and frequency of migraine headaches. It may be used with or without medication and may include cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, or relaxation methods.
Gum chewing and teeth grinding have also been shown to cause headaches in children. If your child chews gum or grinds his or her teeth excessively, you may want to encourage ending the habit.
Take It Easy
Kids who get headaches can participate in most activities, but sometimes it will be best to just take it easy. Do not commit a child with headaches to too many activities. Leave some time for rest and relaxation. Overall, kids who get headaches will benefit from balanced, nutritious meals (especially breakfast), regular sleep patterns (including a full night’s sleep), and exercise. Although exercise may help relieve tension, it may not be a good idea for your child to have too much exertion during a headache.
Tell Teachers and School Staff
Your child spends a lot of the day at school, so you need to make teachers and school staff aware of your child’s headaches. Have your doctor write a note explaining any medications and special instructions, such as rest or recovery periods. Make sure that your child is allowed to take medication when needed. Migraines, for example, should be treated as soon as your child senses one coming on. Waiting until class ends is likely to lead to a much more severe migraine and a longer recovery period. Children with headaches may need to miss school, but if your child is missing school often, you should seek further medical attention.
The Headache Diary
If your child has headaches, encourage keeping a headache diary to help recognize when and why the headaches happen. Take this information to your child’s doctor because it will help to determine the cause of the headaches and create a treatment or prevention plan.
The National Headache Foundation suggests the following questions for your child’s headache diary:
- What does the headache feel like?
- Where is the pain located?
- Does your headache appear without warning or are there signs of it coming, such as weakness, nausea, lightheadedness, or sensitivity to light or noise?
- Do you see bright lights, blind spots, or changes in vision?
- Do headaches occur after eating certain foods or drinking certain beverages such as caffeinated soft drinks, pizza, or chocolate?
- Do certain situations, events, or physical activity produce a headache?
- When do the headaches occur—once a week, twice a week, once a month?
- Does anyone else in your family have headaches?
When Is Further Evaluation Necessary?
Most headaches in children are due to migraine, muscle tension, or other common causes and rarely need more evaluation than a careful history and physical examination. Headaches may, however, be a symptom of serious health problems and need further study. Every child’s headache needs to be evaluated individually. But, in general, the following symptoms justify further evaluation:
- Weakness, visual or speech difficulties, or a change in personality
- Vomiting in association with headaches
- Headaches that awaken a child at night or are there when they wake in the morning
- Headaches in association with excessive urination or unusually early development of puberty or failure to menstruate when expected
- Headaches that worsen steadily in severity or frequency over days or weeks, change in a long-established pattern of headache, or the onset of a severe headache
- Headache associated with depression or anxiety—Further evaluation generally focuses on the anxiety or depression unless headaches meet 1 or more of the criteria above
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
National Headache Foundation
Help for Headaches
Children's headache disorders. National Headache Foundation website. Available at: http://www.headaches.org/headaches-in-children. Accessed March 29, 2016.
Headaches. Kids Health—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/general/aches/headache.html. Updated September 2015. Accessed March 29, 2016.
Watemberg N, Matar M, et al. The influence of excessive chewing gum use on headache frequency and severity among adolescents. Pediatr Neurol. 2014 Jan;50(1):69-72.
1/2/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Powers SW, Kashikar-Zuck SM, et al. Cognitive behavioral therapy plus amitriptyline for chronic migraine in children and adolescents: a randomized clinical trial. JAMA. 2013 Dec 25;310(24):2622-30.
1/2/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Huquet A, McGrath PJ, et al. Efficacy of psychological treatment for headaches: an overview of systematic reviews and analysis of potential modifiers of treatment efficacy. Clin J Pain. 2013. Jul 2.
1/2/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Watemberg N, Matar M, et al. The influence of excessive chewing gum use on headache frequency and severity among adolescents. Pediatr Neurol. 2014 Jan;50(1):69-72.
Last reviewed March 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 1/2/2014