A recent report says that hospital ERs have seen a big increase in the number of kids and teens reporting headaches. What is causing the increase? And is there anything kids (and parents) can do to prevent them?
Dr. Lindsay Elton, pediatric neurologist who specializes in headaches/migraines, says she is not surprised by the report. “While we almost always see seasonal increases in headaches in the fall, likely related to more stress with the school year as well as allergies, I think we are also seeing an overall rise in headache visits over the entire year.”
Reasons for Headache Surge and Prevention Tips
Dr. Elton says the most common culprits for the rise in headaches are:
- Poor sleep related to an increase in homework demands and screen time/electronic media use.
- Greater anxiety and depression, likely also related to school, homework and poor sleeping habits
Most recurrent headaches are usually the cause of several issues at once. Said Dr. Elton, “I recommend addressing lifestyle factors first, before resorting to a prescription medications. Lifestyle changes she recommends include:
- Drink up. Most children and teens do not drink enough water during the school day. This is a frequent cause of afternoon headaches, especially in elementary school aged kids.
- More and better sleep. Limit “screens” (such as iPhones, computers, etc.) in the evenings and turn everything off one hour before bedtime. Also, try getting into bed earlier. Even just 30 minutes of extra sleep can make a HUGE difference.
- Fresh is best. Processed foods contain chemicals including dyes and preservatives that can trigger headaches in some patients. Instead of food from a box, try fresh fruits, yogurt or cheese.
- Limit use of over-the-counter meds. Taking regularly over-the-counter medications, like Tylenol, ibuprofen or Excedrin, can actually make headaches worse. This can happen even with as few as 3-4 doses of these medications per week. If a parent is giving their kids Tylenol several times per week for more than a month, a visit with their doctor to discuss additional options may be in order.
- Get moving. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise at least 3 days a week. (School PE doesn’t count.)
- Focus on stress management. Look for a fun activity for your kids – a sport, an art or craft project – to help them decompress. If significant stressors exist, a few visits with a trained psychologist or counselor to help kids identify stress management and coping strategies can be helpful, too.
Most kids will experience improvement in headaches (if not resolution) with these tips.
“Persistent headaches and severe headaches often require additional evaluation and management, but all kids will still benefit from the lifestyle changes above,” said Dr. Elton.
If your child suffers from persistent headaches, talk to his pediatrician. Or, make an appointment with one of our specialists.