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Headaches and kids: what parents need to know

Teen girl holds head from headache

It’s back to school time, which can add a lot of excitement and stress to life. If your kid experiences frequent headaches, you are not alone. More than 40,000 kids in the Kansas City metro suffer from headaches. The good news is that headaches aren’t usually serious, but they can still be debilitating and impact quality of life.

Parents often tell me they don’t know what to do to help their kids. Not knowing how to help your kid is one of the hardest things about being a parent. The best thing is to educate yourself about the triggers and treatment options, so you can help your kid manage their symptoms and get their headaches under control.

Diagnosing headaches

There are well over 100 classified types of headaches, and doctors can usually make a diagnosis by asking questions and performing an exam.

  • Tension-type headaches are the most common and cause mild to moderate pain. They come and go and usually don’t have any other symptoms.
  • Migraines are moderate to severe headaches that are made worse with light or noise and can be aggravated by simply moving your head. Typically, I tell patients that if their headache is bad enough to cause them to want to lie down in a quiet room, it’s a migraine.

Migraines are the number two disability in the world (back pain is number one) and are the most common reason people seek medical help because they can be painful, frequent and difficult to control. The vast majority of people will have episodic migraines, which means they’ll have the headache a handful of times a month. But, one out of 100 teenagers have headaches every day.

What causes headaches?

Headaches are caused by a mix of genetics and environmental influences.

About 70 percent of those who suffer from migraines have family members that also have migraines. Many times, people don’t even know there is a family history of headaches. If your kid has frequent headaches, ask other family members if they have headaches too. You might be surprised by what you learn!

We also know that certain people are more likely to have headaches and that environmental triggers like stress, sleep problems, weather, and even menstrual cycles can make headaches more likely to happen.

Most headaches are caused by a simple change in the electrical balance of the brain, and those who suffer from migraines have a harder time adjusting to change and maintaining a balance in the body. For instance, if the weather pressure changes most people experience the pressure change without any problems. For a person who suffers from headaches, the pressure change can trigger a migraine. The same thing happens when lunch or dinner is missed. Most people are ok, but for those who suffer from migraines, the brain can be overresponsive, which results in a headache.

An increase in headaches also picks up in August and September. Our patient volumes and phone call volumes significantly increase. The reason? It’s back-to-school time. This doesn’t mean your kid hates school and wants to avoid going. In fact, many kids who love school also have headaches around this time because their brain is trying to adapt to the change in routine.

While stress doesn’t cause migraines, kids with headaches often benefit from learning advanced stress coping skills. I like to say, stress is to migraines as cupcakes is to diabetes. It doesn’t mean your child is more stressed than their peers, it just means they manifest the stress in different ways.


There are no cures for headaches, but you can treat the problem.

Most kids with headaches don’t need medication immediately and will feel better with a little bit of water and relaxation. However, you’ll want to keep a close eye on them and if they don’t feel better after an hour then give them some pain reliever.

If they have migraines frequently you’ll want to treat them with over-the-counter medication at the first sign of a headache. You won’t want to take the “wait-and-see” approach in this case because if the headache becomes too severe it’ll become uncontrollable.  

Migraines can last anywhere between two and 72 hours, so if over-the-counter medications aren’t working there are other treatments available, such as cranial nerve blocks, DHE infusions, intramuscular injections, and IV medications. There are also non-pharmacological approaches that provide comfort as well, which include neuro-stimulation, acupuncture, and aromatherapy.

Since light, noise or movement can aggravate a headache, create a cave-like environment for your kid. Find a dark, quiet room for them to rest in.

Tips for parents

A majority of kids will complain of a headache at some point in their life and an occasional headache is by no means concerning. In fact, a lot of people don’t understand that younger kids can get headaches too. A very basic way to think about it is that three percent of three-year-olds, 10 percent of 10-year-olds and 15 percent of 15-year-olds get headaches.

Since you can’t see headaches and they don’t show up on medical tests, we recommend you believe your child when they say they’re in pain. However, you also need to encourage them to function. Helping them learn pain-coping skills before they have a headache can help. You can also teach them breathing exercises or progressive muscle relaxation techniques that they can use when they have a migraine. (See our headache relief guide.)

Missing school once or twice a year for a headache is reasonable. If they miss school or visit the nurse’s office once a month or more, then that’s a problem and you should follow up with your pediatrician. You should also consult with your child’s primary provider if they’re having headaches once a week or more. This doesn’t necessary mean that it’s serious, but it might be interfering with them being able to live their life to its fullest.

There’s just so much misinformation out there about headaches, so getting the right treatment at the right time is important.

Learn more about our Headache Clinic and Services at Children’s Mercy.

Learn more about the benefits of acupuncture at Children’s Mercy.