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Help for your tween’s headaches

You’ve probably heard it before. “I can’t go to school; I have a headache,” or “I can’t practise piano today; I have a headache.” You’ve likely even brushed if off as an excuse, but if you have a tween, they might actually have a headache.

According to Dr. Dina Kulik, a Toronto pediatrician and emergency medicine doctor at SickKids Hospital, most children will experience headaches at some point, with some kids having more than others.

“We think that headaches are caused by changes in chemicals, blood vessels or nerves in the brain,” says Dr. Kulik.

Some girls experience headaches at certain times during the menstrual cycle as hormone levels change. Certain headache triggers such as too little sleep, dehydration, low blood sugar, stress, too much screen time (hours in front of the TV, computer, video games) and vision problems are very common.

She says some foods are associated with triggering headaches, such as cheese, chocolate, caffeine, processed foods, MSG and aspartame.

Less frequently, headaches may indicate an illness such as ear, sinus or viral infections or more dangerous illnesses such as meningitis or tumours. Luckily, headaches are only very rarely associated with these conditions.

“You should contact your doctor if your child has severe or recurring headaches on a regular basis or headaches are worsening over a short period of time,” says Dr. Kulik.

Dr. Kulik advises parents to discuss the issue with their child’s doctor if their child is having headaches more than once a month. “If persistent, your doctor may choose to order blood tests, urine tests or sometimes brain imaging like a CT scan or a lumbar puncture, which is very rare.”

Fixing the problem

Luckily, most headaches can be treated at home with little medical intervention. Try easing your child’s pain with the following tips.

  • Have your child lie down in a dark, quiet room, relax and breathe deeply. If necessary, suggest an eye mask to completely block out the light.
  • Ensure that your child is well hydrated. At the onset of pain, have your child drink a tall glass of water.
  • Offer your child a snack, but be sure to avoid any headache triggers that you are aware of.
  • Give your child an over-the-counter pain reliever such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen (never Aspirin). Ask your doctor for the appropriate dosage for your child.
  • Massage the temples, neck and scalp gently. Rubbing the shoulders and back may also help.
  • Experiment with meditation, yoga and breathing exercises.
  • Keep a headache journal for children with recurrent headaches, to document when they occur. This might help to identify triggers and lead to a solution.

Seek medical attention if you notice the following signs and symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Rash
  • Decreased alertness
  • Changes in vision
  • Difficulty moving arms or legs
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Having headaches on waking from sleep, or being woken by the pain of a headache.


Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, February 2014.


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