How Headaches Are Impacting Children & Teens in 2022
June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month, which means it’s time to shine a spotlight on something that affects many children and teens: headaches. There are approximately 45 million Americans complaining of headaches each year.
A headache is defined as “pain or discomfort in the head or face area” and most of us have had at least one in our lives. There are different types of headaches and migraines that are characterized by different symptoms.
While most headaches are not cause for concern, it’s important for parents to monitor symptoms for headaches experienced by their children. In a new survey of over 1,000 parents, 86% of parents report that their children have complained about a headache.
The most common symptoms that accompany a headache are sensitivity to light (30%), fatigue (24%), pulsating and throbbing pain (24%), sensitivity to sound (21%) and nausea (18%).
“For pediatric migraines in particular, it is typically not the pain itself, but the accompanying symptoms that cause the most distress," says Anisa Kelley, MD, Associate Director of Lurie Children's Headache Program. "It is common to feel symptoms of nausea, lightheadedness, dizziness, light/sound sensitivity, and general feeling of unwellness when experiencing a migraine. For this reason, it is important to treat with appropriate medication treatment early in the headache to stop the migraine from evolving into accompanying symptoms. If migraines are treated too late, oftentimes medication treatments will not work effectively to stop the episode."
Most parents say their children complain about headaches a few times a year (39%) or one or two times a year (27%). On the other hand, 6% of children and adolescents complain of a headache weekly or daily. 17-year-olds complain the most about daily headaches, while 18-year-olds complain about the most headaches weekly (and the most overall).
Most parents report that their kids' headaches last a few hours or less. Only 10% have complained of a headache lasting longer than a day.
Many different things can cause a headache. Parents say their children’s headaches are the worst when they’re sick with a cold, flu, or virus (34%), after prolonged screen time (23%), when pollen is high or their kids have allergies (23%), when it’s hot outside (21%), and when they’re hungry (20%).
Missing a meal, experiencing stress in the classroom, or forgetting to drink water can all lead to a headache. Between busy lives at school and extracurricular activities, the news cycle and the pandemic, the cause of some headaches can be easily fixed and addressed quickly.
So, how do parents know when to be concerned? Right now, 61% of parents aren’t concerned about their kids' headaches because it’s normal to get them sometimes.19% of parents say they are somewhat concerned, but not enough to see a medical professional about it.
Parents find some accompanying symptoms particularly worrying, including vomiting, dizziness, fever, nausea, and muscle pain. In addition to other symptoms, timing is also a cause for concern for parents. 48% of parents say they would be concerned about a child’s headache lasting a few hours, and 95% would be concerned if it lasted longer than a day.
Once your child lets you know they’re experiencing a headache, there are different things you can do to treat it. Figuring out the cause of the headache is a good first step, for example when did they last eat? Or drink water? Did they get enough sleep last night? Are they sick? Identifying a possible cause will make it easier to treat a headache.
When asked why they think their children get headaches, 55% of parents say it’s normal to get headaches sometimes. 31% say it’s because of too much screen time. 25% say it’s stress from school, and 20% say it’s due to an illness.
Almost three in four (73%) parents give their children over-the-counter medication to treat a headache. The next most common treatments are:
- 59% - Give them water
- 43% - Check their temperature
- 34% - Give them food
- 28% - Put them down to sleep/tell them to go to sleep
Another step parents can take when treating headaches is to keep track of how frequent and severe their children’s headaches are. 68% of parents do track their children’s symptoms somewhat, but mostly (58%) mentally. Journals or calendars are a better way to keep track of headaches to ensure your child doesn’t need to seek further medical attention.
Some headaches may have a genetic component, especially migraines. We asked parents if they experienced headaches as a child – 55% say they did sometimes, and 18% said often. 22% say they never, rarely, or very rarely experienced headaches as kids.
A much higher number of parents (60%) say they’ve experienced a migraine before, and 39% worry their children will too. 39% also say they worry about the long-term effects of headaches.
Many different things can trigger a headache. This includes environmentally-related causes, like weather or sunlight, or biological causes, such as an underlying medical condition or medicine. 19% of parents say their children have been diagnosed with another health condition, and 18% say their children are currently on medication.
It’s no secret that children are bombarded by technology all day, every day. Between online schooling, homework, gaming, television, and social media, it’s easy to lose track of how many hours they spend looking at screens every day.
In fact, nearly one out of ten of parents think their children are getting headaches more often since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 15% say they think remote learning has caused more headaches for their kids due to increased screen time, and 36% of parents actually restrict their children’s screen time so they won’t get a headache.
“It’s been very apparent that the pandemic has caused massive disruptions in our children’s lives, the impacts of which we are still discovering," says Dr. Kelley. "As a headache doctor, I have noticed that the pandemic has contributed to many of my patients’ headaches in various ways. The implementation of remote learning, and general increase in screen time, has been a huge factor in children with light-sensitive headaches. Additionally, the stress of the pandemic has been pervasive, especially among our youth. Stress and anxiety are important factors that can contribute to pediatric headache and migraines."
Headaches are rarely a cause for concern, but it’s important for parents to monitor symptoms and help them minimize the pain when a headache or migraine strikes. Migraine Solidarity Day is June 21st, 2022, and is a great reminder to talk to your kids about their headaches and other symptoms.
In May 2022, we surveyed 1,008 American parents with at least one child between 0 and 18 about their child’s headaches and health conditions. Respondents were 49% male, 50% female, and 1% transgender or gender non-confirming. They ranged in age from 18 to 82 years old, with an average age of 41.
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