Understanding Headaches in Children


Children can suffer from headaches, just like adults do. More than 90 percent of children and teens will have experienced at least one headache by the time they turn 18 years old. We label child headaches as:

  • Primary headaches, which include tension headaches, migraines and something known as new daily persistent headaches
  • Secondary headaches, which are caused by a separate condition such as an injury or illness and will go away once the condition is treated

Primary headaches in children

Tension headaches and migraines occur with headache-free days between episodes. New daily persistent headaches can start suddenly and continue daily over the course of three to four months. Common triggers of primary headaches include:

  • Dehydration
  • Hunger
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Caffeine consumption
  • Hormonal changes

Tension headaches

Stress can cause tension headaches in children. They start slowly and produce a tight feeling on both sides of the head, as though being squeezed. Other symptoms include:

  • A dull pain that lasts from 30 minutes to a week
  • Mild-to-moderate headache intensity that does not increase with activity level
  • Tension in the back part of the head or neck

Migraine headaches

While the cause of migraine headaches in children is unknown, they tend to run in families. Common triggers include stress, certain foods, lights or sounds. Migraines are often a throbbing-type pain on one side of the head that goes away and then comes back. Symptoms include:

  • Pain that lasts from one to 48 hours
  • Severe headache intensity that increases with activity level
  • Nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and sound

New daily persistent headaches

New daily persistent headaches have qualities of both migraines and tension headaches. Your child may feel squeezing on both sides of their head, and they may have nausea. They may be sensitive to light and sound. While the intensity of pain may increase and decrease each day, the pain will be present every day, possibly lasting for months.

Diagnosing childhood headaches

Effective treatment for childhood headaches starts with determining what type of headache your child experiences. Your child’s pediatrician will perform both a physical exam and a neurological exam. He or she will also want to know:

  • If there is a family history of headaches
  • About your child’s lifestyle habits such as sleep, diet, activity level and water consumption
  • Headache specifics such as location on the head, possible triggers, duration and symptoms

In some complex cases, your child’s pediatrician may recommend brain imaging tests. Or your child may be referred to a neurologist for more advanced diagnosis and care.

Treating headaches in children and teens

Behavioral modifications can often reduce the frequency and intensity of your child’s headaches. For example:

  • Changing sleep patterns to make sure your child gets eight to 10 hours of restful sleep per night
  • Eating more frequent, smaller meals throughout the day
  • Increasing water intake
  • Being physically active
  • Incorporating stress reduction techniques like mindfulness or yoga

For mild or infrequent headaches, over-the-counter medicines may provide relief and are generally safe to use.

If your child experiences frequent headaches, you can find a pediatrician or make an appointment by calling 800-UCLA-MD1.

Please sign in or register to post a reply.

Related Posts