Children get headaches — here’s what parents can do

Is your child complaining of a headache? Here's what parents can do . Getty Images

Headaches are common for all age groups, but when a child gets one, it may be hard for them to communicate how they feel.

Dr. Gerald Friedman, pediatrician and headache specialist based in Thornhill, Ont., told Global News headaches occur in children and increase in frequency when they reach adolescence.

“Approximately 50 per cent of children will experience a headache during their childhood,” he said. “Migraine occurs in five to 10 per cent of children.”

Older children with headaches are capable to talk about how they feel.

“For younger children with limited abilities to verbally communicate the parents should pay attention to episodes characterized by crying, appearing pale, vomiting and relief with sleep,” Friedman said.

READ MORE: Boy, 14, dies of rare neurological disease after complaining of a headache

Dr. Daune MacGregor, staff neurologist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, explains some research indicates one in 11 children have headaches.

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“If you look overall and ask a school-aged population if they’ve had headaches, at least 60 per cent of them will tell you at some point in time they get it.”

And while some adults who have headaches never go to their doctors, both experts added if your child is experiencing a headache, especially for the first time, parents and health professionals need to understand what’s going on.

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“Obviously it depends on the frequency… but if you get a child who has recurrent headaches with periods in between then you’ve got to try to sort out what the origin of the headache is,” she said.

Even if your child is getting a headache maybe once or twice a month but they are not responding to pain medication, she says, they should also be checked out.

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“It’s really a matter of sorting out whether or not the headache is what we call a primary headache disorder,” she said. “These are the ones that have genetic origins like migraines, tension-type (headaches) or stress-related headaches.”

Symptoms to pay attention to

Friedman says some headache symptoms are known as red flags and it is important to remember that headaches are symptoms.

“These include headaches which awaken the child from sleep during the night, or begin in the very early hours of the morning (between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m.), especially if associated with vomiting.”

If a child is feeling a headache that extends to the back of their head, this would warrant further evaluation, he noted.

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“Children who experience any of the red flag symptoms should see their doctor immediately. Children who experience headaches more than once a week should also be evaluated.”

MacGregor notes sometimes the pressure can change in a child bends over, for example, or there are other symptoms along with the headache that include weakness in the limbs.

She says children often describe headaches in specific ways. Sometimes this can include a pounding headache that makes the child feel sick or nauseous. Some children can describe their heads squeezing, aching or feeling pressure — either way, note down exactly how they feel.

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Dr. Marissa Lagman-Bartolomoe, an assistant professor in pediatrics at the University of Toronto and a pediatric and young adult headache neurologist at the Hospital for Sick Children and Women’s College Hospital, told Global News other red flags include headaches associated with fever.

She adds rashes, blurry vision, dizziness and spinning sensations are also considered red flags. Age and sex can also matter, she added, for example, a teenage girl who is pregnant may be feeling symptoms of headaches.

“Any headache, even if they have a previous headache and its a sudden change and it is progressively getting worse over days or weeks, that is something they should [go to the doctor for].”

Treatment and prevention

Friedman says before treatment options are considered, a child has to be evaluated.

“(This is to) determine the nature and cause of the headaches,” he said. “The more common causes of childhood headaches include tension-type headaches and migraines, and the treatment options vary depending on the cause of headaches.”

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Treatment options can include over-the-counter medicines like Advil or Tylenol, experts said, or prescribed medication. For some, treatment can include cognitive behavioural therapy or other types of relaxation techniques like meditation or deep breathing.

Lagman-Bartolomoe for most children, taking an over-the-counter medication and getting rest can help. Often, sleeping is a beneficial treatment option.

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She adds the causes for migraines, for example, are still unknown and more research has to be done from an adolescent’s point of view. Often, the symptom of a headache can be caused by several things like infection, sinus issues or fevers.

Other more worrisome (but not as common) causes can include infections, inflammation of the brain or bleeding in the brain.

Genetics can also play a factor — if a parent or an older sibling has a history of headaches, chances are a child will get a headache as well, experts said. “Up to 80 per cent of patients coming in with migraines will have a first-degree relative who also has migraines,” she said.

And children who have headaches, often have headaches in adulthood.

What parents can do

Friedman said parents should carefully look at their child’s nutrition, hydration status, and sleep patterns if they are experiencing headaches.

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“A diary is often a helpful first tool to help the physician sort out what type of headache the child is experiencing.”

Lagman-Bartolomoe recommends parents to be observant of their child’s behaviour. “If the child is asking for the TV to be shut off or the light to be turned off… that’s important in their behaviour.”

If they are feeling nauseous, avoid giving them too much fluid and keep track of their diet.

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