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What is Causing Your Child’s Chronic Headaches?

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What is Causing Your Child’s Chronic Headaches?

Jan 13, 2023

As a parent, you worry when your child feels ill. If your child is suffering from painful, chronic headaches, you may assume the worst. But the cause of your child’s pain may be something much more simple. Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, explains how stress, anxiety, and screen time may be causing your child’s headaches and how to prevent them.

Episode Transcript

Kids and headaches, it's something I have parents bring their kids in for all the time. When is it time to worry? And when are there simple things you can do at home to make your child feel better?

Whenever kids get frequent headaches, parents often start thinking worst-case scenario. I'm often asked if a child who has frequent headaches needs an MRI to determine if they have a brain tumor or not. Only one in 4,000 children who have frequent headaches will have something in their brain. Ninety-nine percent of the time the headaches are due to more benign causes.

When we see kids with frequent headaches, some of the first questions we ask are to rule in or out that possibility of a brain tumor. Kids with brain tumors have severe headaches often that don't respond to pain medications or rest, or other symptoms, like dizziness, waking them up in the middle of the night with the worst headache of their lives, and vomiting, they're off balance when they're walking, have vision changes, and facial drooping. According to some studies, up to 50% of kids with brain tumors have no headaches at all but have other symptoms that raise big red flags for doctors that there's something wrong, including those vision and balance changes that I just mentioned.

Stress Headaches

So if it's not a brain tumor, why do some kids get frequent headaches? This shouldn't be shocking, but one of the biggest causes is stress. Many kids are super stressed out these days. They have academic pressure as young as preschool age. Often, there are families struggling with money issues, parents having marriage problems, older kids trying to keep up with what all their other friends are doing, especially in the digital world they live in. Social media puts a lot of pressure on teens that they really aren't able to handle.

Kids pick up on everything going on in their world. I have some patients as young as three suffering from anxiety because of things going on in their home environment. I've seen kids as young as one throw a temper tantrum if they don't get to play on the tablet or phone when they demand to. And I've got patients who are seven or eight, who are coming in for daily headaches because they're being bullied at school and don't want to go. Again, the teenagers stressed out from peer pressure that is only amplified these days with online video games and apps like Instagram and Snapchat.

Relieving Tension Headaches

Some of these kids with headaches do have migraines, but most have tension headaches. If your child is getting frequent headaches, what can you do? First, talk to your child and find out what's bothering them. Do it calmly though and let your child know you're concerned about them and that they're not in trouble no matter what the issue is. This helps them be more honest with you.

Find out if they can see okay. It's pretty common to have frequent headaches because of eye strain and needing glasses. And evaluate just how much screen time they're having. And if it's more than two hours a day, have them back off.

Make sure they're getting good sleep too. Doing meditation before bed and having a consistent bedtime routine will help with this.

If you still can't figure it out, then have them see their pediatrician who can help do a more thorough evaluation and provide some answers specific for your child's headache.

updated: January 13, 2023
originally published: July 22, 2019