Navigating the world of childhood headaches can be challenging for parents. While not every headache indicates a migraine, nor does every severe headache represent a dire situation, persistent headaches in children are uncommon and can sometimes signal a more serious underlying health issue. That’s why it’s crucial to consult with healthcare professionals in such situations. In this comprehensive guide, we delve into the different types of headaches, potential causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment, and the importance of seeking medical advice.
What is a Headache?
A headache manifests as pain or discomfort in the head or facial area and can either be a single episode or recurrent. The affected area can be localised to a specific part of the head or face, or it can involve multiple locations.
Unravelling the Causes of Headaches
The root causes of headaches are complex and not completely understood. Many theories suggest they result from a combination of factors, including muscle tension and changes in the blood vessels in the head. Alterations in the communication between different parts of the nervous system, involved in relaying pain information from the head, face, and neck areas, may also play a role. In some cases, chronic headaches could be related to poor sleep quality or sleep deprivation. Less commonly, headaches could signify a serious issue, such as a brain tumour or malformation, though these instances are rare.
Various factors can influence how a child experiences a headache, including genetics, hormones, stress, diet, medications, and dehydration. Recurrent headaches, irrespective of their type, can lead to academic and behavioural problems and, in some cases, depression.
Understanding the Types of Headaches
Headaches can be classified into two primary categories:
1. Primary Headaches: These are generally caused by muscle tension, changes in the blood vessels or nervous system communication, or inflammation in the brain. Primary headaches are unrelated to another medical condition and include migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches.
– Migraines: Migraines can start in early childhood. Around 20 percent of teens are thought to experience migraine headaches, which often run in families. The onset is typically around seven years of age for boys and ten for girls. Symptoms can include pain on one or both sides of the head, sensitivity to light or sound, nausea, vomiting, and sweating. Some children may experience an aura before the onset of a migraine.
– Tension Headaches: These are the most common type of headaches. Stress, emotional conflict, and changes in sleep habits can often trigger tension headaches.
– Cluster Headaches: Less common than migraines or tension headaches, cluster headaches usually start in children older than ten years of age and are more common in adolescent males.
2. Secondary Headaches: These result from structural problems in the brain due to another health condition or disease. They are the least common type of headaches.
Recognising Serious Illness-related Headaches
Certain symptoms may suggest a more severe underlying cause for your child’s headache. These include headaches that wake your child up from sleep, headaches that start very early in the morning, pain that worsens with strain, such as coughing or sneezing, recurrent vomiting without other signs of a stomach virus, and sudden onset of severe pain.
Diagnosing headaches involves a comprehensive medical evaluation, including a thorough history and physical examination, along with diagnostic tests if required. The healthcare provider will ask questions about the headache’s occurrence, location, duration, and changes in behaviour or walking patterns. If the child’s history is consistent with tension or migraine-type headaches and the neurological exam is normal, further diagnostic testing may not be necessary.
Treatment for Headaches
The goal of headache treatment is to prevent future occurrences. Depending on the
type of headache, age, overall health of the child, and parental preferences, the doctor may suggest various treatments. This can include resting in a quiet, dark environment, medications, stress management, avoiding known triggers, dietary changes, and exercise.
In the case of migraines, specific medications, both over-the-counter and prescription, can help manage the symptoms or reduce the onset of severe migraines. It’s crucial to remember that some headaches may require immediate medical attention and possibly hospitalisation, diagnostic testing, or even surgery.
Headaches in children should never be dismissed or overlooked. If your child frequently complains of headaches, it’s crucial to seek medical advice promptly. Quick diagnosis and treatment can help ensure your child’s well-being, prevent potential long-term consequences, and alleviate your worries as a parent. Remember, only a healthcare professional can diagnose the cause of your child’s headaches and recommend the best course of action.
Please also see our guidelines on the dietary impact on Migraines.