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Pediatric Health

Hitting Pain Head-on

Relief is within reach for children and teens suffering from headaches

June 01, 2011
Migraines and other headaches aren't just for grown-ups.

Up to 8 percent of children will experience a headache by the tender age of 3. That number jumps to almost 50 percent by the time they reach 7. And puberty is prime time for the migraine to first rear its head.

The good news is that in the vast majority of cases, headaches can be managed. The key is pinpointing the exact problem and then determining the right treatment.

Searching for the source

In the pediatric population, headaches can be triggered by a wide range of factors, from the flu to stress at school, it's natural for parents to worry if their child complains of a serious headache without a clear reason. Any severe headache, or moderate headaches that occur frequently and interfere with your child's daily activities, should be evaluated by a doctor.

Headaches fall into two major categories – primary and secondary. The most common primary headaches are migraines and tension headaches. Secondary headaches stem from other conditions, such as allergies, sinus or ear infections, dental problems, or eye strain. If your child's physician excludes secondary headaches, it is time to determine which type of primary headache is the culprit.

About 75 percent of primary headaches are tension headaches. These can be caused by poor sleep or diet, dehydration, or stress. Common symptoms include:

• Pressure toward the front and sides of the head

• Tightening, rather than pulsating, pain

• A dull, aching feeling

Migraines make up 15 to 20 percent of primary headaches in the pediatric population. Hallmarks of these severe headaches, which can last one hour or several days, can include:

• Throbbing, pulsating pain

• Pain that worsens with physical activity or confines your child to bed

• Nausea or vomiting

• Sensitivity to light or noise

• Visual disturbances that precede or accompany the pain (known as migraine with aura)

Most researchers believe that genetics play a role in migraines, so knowing your family history is important.

Help for headaches

Mild to moderate headaches can usually be treated with over-the-counter medications, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. It's important to use these at an appropriate dose and in a timely manner. If these treatments don't provide adequate relief, especially in the case of migraines, your child's doctor might prescribe other medicines.

Drugs known as triptans have been proven effective in treating migraines, but they are FDA-approved only in patients 17 or older. If your child suffers from frequent migraines, the doctor may recommend a daily medicine to prevent them.

Parents should also consider their child's lifestyle. Today's technology-driven children and teens are often eating on the run, lacking exercise, and staying up too late. Sometimes a good night's sleep is the best medicine.

For more information, please visit rileyhospital.org.

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Dr. Christopher Jackman is a pediatric neurologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health.

Tags: In This Issue, Health, Kids, Parenting, Pediatric Health

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