Kids Get Headaches Too!

by Sondra McElhinney, EdD

"Why aren't you doing your homework."

"But Mom, my head hurts. I want to sleep."

"Do your homework. Kids don't get headaches."

Is this a conversation you have had with your child? Or maybe you know a friend who has had it with her child?

"Headaches really do occur in the lives of kids. We've found a probable incidence of from four to ten percent of kids suffering from true vascular headaches such as migraines. Unfortunately, headaches can be happening and you don't know it," reports Dr. Paul Warren, behavioral pediatrician at Minirth Meier New Life Clinics.

We, as parents, school personnel and health care professionals, can no longer safely conclude "Oh, he has eyestrain from reading too much" or "she is just acting out." As with adults children must have the medical tests to determine that there are no physical problems with the brain. Consult a pediatrician to eliminate any physical problem. Consult a neurologist to eliminate serious infections, brain tumors, or major trauma to the head. In some cases a childhood psychologist might be needed to help the child learn to cope with the migraine pain and symptoms and also help the parents to understand and cope.

Doctors frequently look for the same medical history for children that they do with adults suffering migraines. Is there a family history? What is the personality type? Dr. Frank Minirth reports "...we often find that migraine sufferers are bright, smart, verbal and probably obsessive about some things." At the same time however, you must recognize that the casual and easy going child can also be a migraine sufferer.

Child migraineurs exhibit the same symptoms as adults. The migraine may be preceded by an aura of flashing lights, flickering dots, or other visual disturbances. Think how frightening this must be for a small child who is not able to voice what is happening to him/her. At the same time the child feels strange and sick to his/her stomach. The child does not know how to express himself so he may throw tantrums, avoid doing school work, and/or get into some sort of trouble. Not because he/she plans to do that but because the irritation of the pain, not understanding it, and unable to express it causes the child to act in unusual ways. And as the cycle of irritation and pain and acting out continues, the child becomes irritated at himself for doing these things.

Parents, physicians and school personnel need to observe:

1. Is the child in obvious discomfort? The child holds his head with his hands or the child squirms in bed but holds his head very still or the child complains about a strange light in his eyes.

2. Do the headaches curtail activities of the child?

With family? The child no longer participates in family activities or the child no longer finds interest in his own hobbies or the child stays in bed.

With friends? The child stays inside the home rather than going outside to play with friends or the children expresses frustration and anger in an unusual manner.

At school? The child lays his head on the desk rather than participate in the activities or the child stays inside rather than going outside for recess or the child goes to the nurse for aspirin.

3. Do the headaches come at approximately the same time...of day, of week, of month, during the same activity? The child complains of pain every Saturday morning when there is a succor game scheduled or every Friday when mom is using cleaning supplies or the child complains of pain every morning upon waking or the child complains of pain on Sunday if two meals may be served instead of the normal three.

Parents need to watch the behavior to the child. Parents should take note of non-verbal cues such as when a child is holding his head, pressing on his temples, or trying to keep his/her head very still. Children who display symptoms of fussiness, crying, whining, or just out of sorts may be exhibiting signs of a headache. A problem for younger children is they do not have the words to tell you more than "Mommy, it hurts."

School personnel need to know there is a reason for the child not wanting to participate in activities with other class members or not doing homework, not paying attention in class or not attending school. Many times a teacher or principal may see this behavior as not appropriate. At the same time school personnel may not recognize that there is a cause for the behavior. There is one case I know of where the child and parents were taken to court because the child was missing so much school. The parents provided the school with documentation from physicians YET the parents and the child were taken to court charged with truancy. Communication and understanding are needed by parents with the school personnel.

Parents need to find ways to help the child in addition to the obvious medical treatment. Parents need to evaluate their expectations of the child as well as how the child perceives and reacts to the expectations. Parents need to communicate and help educate school officials and teachers in understanding about the child's headache pain and acting out behavior. Parents must provide for the medical treatment for the child. Parents must help the child understand what is happening by getting the child to talk about it. Parents must provide a safe environment for the child when he is feeling out of control from the headaches.

The news is out! Kids do get headaches. Kids get migraine headaches too!

© Sondra McElhinney


Sondra McElhinney was the founder of HOPA ~ HeadOffPain Advocators, a nonprofit organization.