Family Health

Helping Your Teenager's Headaches

Complaints of headaches

It’s never easy to see your teenager hurt, especially when you can’t figure out the cause. I get a lot of questions from parents of my teenage patients about headaches.

Headaches, however, are one of the most common pain complaints we see in pediatric clinic. In fact, in one study, 56 percent of boys and 74 percent of girls between ages 12 and 17 said they had a headache in the past month. While many parents fear those headaches may be the sign of something serious, most have a very common cause. 

What is behind your teenager’s headaches? 

It could be one of several different causes:

Tension headaches:  Usually described as a dull pressure or tightness around the head, the pain from tension headaches is usually mild to moderate, and these headaches don’t usually prevent your teen from going about their daily activities. 

Migraines:  Migraines are described as more of a throbbing or pounding sensation, and the pain is more severe than tension headaches. Teens may complain of other symptoms with migraine headaches, such as nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light or sound. 

Illnesses:  Headache is a common complaint in a variety of illnesses, including the common cold, sinus infection and allergies. 

Head injuries:  Sports injuries are one of the most common causes of head injuries in teens, and headache is one of the main complaints. 

Other common causes:  Stress, skipping meals, not getting enough sleep, medications or caffeine can also cause headaches.

Finding relief

When it comes to relieving headache pain, there are lots of techniques you can urge your teen to try.

First, I always stress to my patients the importance of getting a good night’s sleep, staying active and eating healthy foods on a regular schedule without skipping meals. It is not always easy to get teenagers to abide by these lifestyle recommendations, but in a lot of patients these are enough to make their headaches more manageable or even take them away completely!

Tension headaches are often caused by tightening of the muscles in the neck and back of the head, so massaging the neck area can do wonders. It can also help, when the headaches first begin, to have them lie down in a cool, dark room to block out stimulation. They can also try applying a cool washcloth to the forehead.

For most of my patients who come to the clinic with the complaint of frequent headaches, I recommend keeping a headache diary. Every time they have a headache, write in the diary about the headache. When did it start? How long did it last? Did anything make it better or worse? These details will help your pediatrician characterize the headaches and come up with a treatment plan. It can also help your teen identify and avoid any headache triggers that were noted in their diary.

Medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also be very useful, especially if taken as soon as possible after the headache begins. It is important, however, to talk with your pediatrician about a pain management plan. Some of these medications, if taken too frequently, can cause the headaches to rebound when the medications are stopped. 

When to talk to a health care provider

There are also other reasons you should take your concerns to a pediatrician:  

•    If the headaches are severe 
•    If your child has more than one a week
•    If their headache interferes with daily activities
•    If the headache is caused by a head injury, they need to be evaluated as soon as possible
•    If the headaches are at night or early morning, especially if the headaches are waking a person up from sleep
•    If the headaches cause vision changes, including blurry vision, light sensitivity or “seeing spots”
•    If the headaches cause stiff neck, tooth or jaw pain, fever and vomiting

If you have any other questions about your child’s health, talk to your Methodist Physicians Clinic health care provider.

About the Author

Pediatrician Dr. Emily Bendlin has always had a passion for working with kids and parents.

Not one to steer clear of difficult cases, she wakes up every morning ready to take on new challenges that await her at Methodist Physicians Clinic.

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