According to the National Headache Foundation, more than 10 million American children between the ages of 5 and 17 experience chronic headaches; this makes up 20 percent of all young people. So when your kid gets a headache, what should you do? Pediatric neurologist and headache specialist, Marc DiSabella, DO, discusses the different types of headaches and how to treat your child’s headaches.

What is a headache?

A headache is pain or discomfort in the head or face area. Headaches can be single or recurrent in nature, and localized to one or more areas of the head and face.

Headaches are typically divided into two categories: primary and secondary.

Primary headaches are due to the headache condition itself and not other conditions. For example, they can be caused by tight muscles, dilated blood vessels, changes in communication between parts of the nervous system or inflammation of the structures in the brain. There are three types of primary headaches: migraines, tension headaches and cluster headaches.

Secondary headaches are caused by problems in the structure of the brain, or by other health conditions and diseases. Secondary headaches are the least common type of headache and typically increase in frequency over time. They may be associated with other neurologic symptoms or signs, such as fever, excessive vomiting, double vision or periods of confusion that are otherwise unexplained.

How to treat your child’s headaches

The good news is that most kids don’t need lab tests or MRIs for headaches. Headaches can usually be treated at home with rest, quiet, plenty of fluids and over-the-counter pain relievers. An electrolyte-filled drink like Gatorade, Powerade or coconut water will help break the headache quickly. If you use ibuprofen, be sure not to use it more than three days in a week – people who overuse it can develop daily headaches.

If your child feels fine and wants to play outside or go to school, they can, even with a headache.

How do I prevent headaches?

Most patients with headaches respond to basic healthy lifestyle changes that reduce headache frequency and intensity. Common goals include drinking specific amount of fluids every day, avoiding caffeine and artificial sweeteners, daily aerobic exercise, regular sleep cycles and a healthy, well-balanced diet. In a study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than 70 percent of children and adolescents showed improvement in their headaches when they performed these lifestyle changes for a period of several months.

When to see a doctor

If your child has headaches on a regular (or daily) basis, or their headaches are increasing in frequency, you should consult your pediatrician. Other reasons to consult a doctor are if the headache wakes your child up out of sleep or if their headache has lasted for longer than three days and it won’t go away.

If you have any questions about your child’s headaches or how to treat them, do not hesitate to contact your child’s pediatrician.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marc DiSabellaMarc DiSabella, DO, is Program Director of the Child Neurology Fellowship; Medical Director of Neurology Education; and Director of the Headache Program at Children's National. His interests lie in the treatment of pediatric migraines and its related disorders through the use of lifestyle modification and behavioral strategies, in addition to oral, nasal and intravenous medications.

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