By Guest Blogger Lauren Doyle Strauss, DO, board-certified headache specialist, assistant professor, Pediatric Neurology, Wake Forest Baptist Health Brenner Children’s Hospital
Headaches are incredibly common. In fact, #migraine was the No. 1 trending disease on Twitter for 2015. While adults are familiar with headaches, many of us are not aware that children suffer from them, too.
In reality, headaches are the most common sign of pain in childhood. Recurrent headaches are reported in a third to a half of kids. Around two to six percent of children have daily headaches. Both boys and girls can have headaches. In younger kids, the condition is most common in boys; in older children, it’s more common in girls.
So if your child suffers from headaches—even chronic ones—don’t be alarmed. Headaches can be treated and often can be prevented. The following five lifestyle habits are the best place to start:
1. Adequate Sleep
Proper sleep is a way to reduce headaches as both under sleeping and oversleeping can trigger them. I recommend that kids get eight to ten hours of sleep a night. You should also ensure your child’s bedtimes and wake times remain consistent throughout the week and weekend—give or take an hour. So if your child gets up at 7 a.m. on school mornings, he or she should get up no later than 8 a.m. on weekend mornings.
Make sure older kids avoid naps so that they’re more tired at bedtime. You can also help your child fall asleep more easily at night by ending screen time (TV, computer, tablet, smartphone) at least one hour before bed. Electronic screens emit a strong wavelength of light, making it harder for kids to fall asleep and have good quality sleep.
2. Proper Hydration
Ensuring your child is properly hydrated can be a challenge. Many schools have guidelines on how much fluid kids can have during the school day. So make sure your children have one or two glasses of fluid before school, during lunch, when they return home, and during dinner.
While staying hydrated can help ward off headaches, it’s important that kids avoid certain beverages. Caffeine can trigger headaches. This may seem confusing because caffeine is sometimes used to treat headaches, too. But research has shown that regular or semi-regular caffeine consumption is definitely a trigger. Kids who are not well hydrated and consuming a lot of caffeine may be removing all the fluid they’re taking in. Don’t forget that sodas aren’t the only drinks that contain caffeine—teas and sports drinks have it as well. Some headache preparations, such as Goody’s powder and Excedrin Migraine, also contain caffeine. These especially should be avoided by kids because of possible aspirin content.
3. A Healthy Diet
When it comes to preventing headaches, when your child eats can be as important as what your child eats. Focus on maintaining a regular meal pattern and avoiding skipped meals. It’s also important that your child eats fruits and vegetables and maintains variety (avoids eating the same food all the time). Possible triggers include preservatives, hard cheeses, nitrate-containing foods (e.g. hot dogs) and MSG. It is best to avoid packaged foods and ask that MSG be removed from your dishes at certain restaurants.
4. Stress Reduction
These days, kids tend to be more overscheduled than adults. I see a lot of children managing a heavy homework load, sports, after school activities, and sometimes a part-time job on top of all of that. If your child is experiencing headaches and also has an overloaded schedule, take a serious look at ways to create a better balance. Consider eliminating or adjusting activities.
Routine stressors aren’t the only potential headache triggers. Unexpected stress, such as an illness in the family, financial difficulties or divorce, can also cause headaches. If this is happening in your family, meet with a school counselor or a therapist outside school. Practices like yoga, tai chi and mind-body therapy can also be helpful.
Research has shown that regular aerobic exercise is good for overall health, and may also reduce the frequency of headaches. We don’t know if that’s because it leads to weight loss and, thus, reduced inflammation in the body, or if it’s because exercise is a great stress reliever. Trying regular walks as a family is a great way to get started.
When to See a Doctor
What if you’ve tried these lifestyle changes and your child is still having frequent or severe headaches—particularly if those headaches aren’t responding to over-the-counter medications like Tylenol or Motrin? Then it may be time to meet with a pediatrician or headache specialist. Other concerning signs include headaches that are disabling, becoming more frequent, waking your child from sleep, regularly lasting longer than an hour or containing new symptoms.
Dr. Strauss is one of the only pediatric headache specialists in the region. She is leading a program to help children and young adults suffering with headaches, giving them treatment options so that they can return to a meaningful life. You can learn more about the program here. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Strauss or one of her team members at Wake Forest Baptist Health Brenner Children’s Hospital, call 336-716-WAKE (9253).
*Sponsored by Wake Forest Baptist Health Brenner Children’s Hospital