Kids and Headaches: Is It All in Their Heads?
Aside from the very important short-term reasons for treating headaches, there are long-term reasons as well.
"Headaches are the most common cause of kids using over-the-counter drugs, and if you are used to taking medication as a child, when you are older you are more likely to rely on medications because it will become a habit," Rhee says. She says that chronic headaches might make a child feel unhealthy and weak, which can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and interfere with quality of life. "Also, there is a large cost in terms of lost school days and productivity," she says.
"In the short term, chronic daily headaches are associated with more frequent depression, anxiety, panic," Diamond says. Secondly, "in an attempt to medicate the child so they can keep functioning, we'll sometimes see [pain medication] overuse which can lead to ulcer, kidney, and liver problems. Clearly, the longer you abuse [pain medications], the worse off you are. And again, with anxiety and depression, the longer people have chronic pain, the worse the prognosis. So you really want to intervene and give them a good plan that is a life plan."
Treatment options are tied to the type of headache, its frequency, and its causes. It's imperative that a child gets a full evaluation to rule out serious causes and find an individualized solution. There are a variety of medications available -- both to prevent a headache and to stop an already-existing one -- including over-the-counter and prescription drugs. Unfortunately, most of the prescription drugs given to children are only FDA-approved for adults. That does not mean they're unsafe, just untested as of yet. Experienced physicians like Rothner do use them when needed in severe cases. Rothner says study results for a few of those drugs in children under 17 years of age should be published soon.
"Some very good therapies that have nothing to do with medication include good personal hygiene, a good sleep schedule, a regular activities schedule," Diamond says. "Make sure kids aren't skipping meals and keep them well-hydrated when playing sports." She also is a proponent of biofeedback and relaxation techniques that can help stop a headache before it fully develops.