Kids and Headaches: Is It All in Their Heads?
Nov. 7, 2000 -- We all know that many -- if not most -- adults get headaches, but a lesser known fact is that an estimated one in five children between the ages of 5 and 17 suffer from them as well. That's more than 10 million kids in the U.S. with weekly -- if not daily -- pain, and those numbers seem to be rising. As any parent with a headache-prone child knows, it's a big problem even if it happens to little people, and it can have serious implications.
"Even though it looks very trivial, if it becomes a long-term problem, it could be serious," pediatric nurse practitioner Hyekyun Rhee tells WebMD.
Approximately three-quarters of children with repeated headaches experience tension-type headaches caused by tightening of the head and neck muscles. The other quarter have migraines stemming from expanding or narrowing blood vessels in the brain. Experts say a very small percentage of headaches are due to serious "organic" causes, like brain tumors, head trauma, or illnesses like meningitis, which is an inflammation of the linings of the brain and spinal cord.
The causes of these headache can include emotional stress, lack of sleep, and, less frequently, environmental or food triggers, according to those who treat children. Sometimes there's a family predisposition. "If we take migraine, three or four times out of five there is a family history; there's a huge genetic input," A. David Rothner, MD, tells WebMD. "Before puberty, it's more common in boys. After puberty and from then on, it's more common in women -- and that's hormonal." Rothner is the director of the Pediatric Adolescent Headache Clinic and Director Emeritus of Child Neurology at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio.
"Tension headaches are much more common in women. In my personal experience, they are much more common in straight A students. We think that some are caused by inability to deal with success," Rothner says.
Rothner says that some of the children who suffer from recurring tension headaches tend to make a big deal about physical complaints in general and/or enjoy -- without realizing it -- the "secondary gains," like extra attention or a chance to skip school. "I believe the pain is real," he says, "but on the other hand, I have investigated them fully and can find no medical causes."
Another cause of repeated headaches could be the pace of daily life, which, like the incidence of these headaches, is increasing. In a recent article focusing on the prevalence of adolescent headaches, Rhee writes that it "may in part be due to a modern society characterized by speed and unpredictability that might overwhelm children's [mental] and physical development."
Merle Diamond, MD, the associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, agrees. "I think our society is way overstimulated. We are real, real busy, and so are our kids," Diamond says. "They have a lot of sensory input -- friends, school, computers, extracurricular activities. Clearly, in some people, that overstimulation will tip them over the edge."