Kids With Headaches: What Can Be Done? by Cheryl Conard Haight


What better way to start out the CURRENT PAIN NEWS blog than to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart? Adolescents with headaches. Why are so many kids

getting headaches? Are the numbers on the rise? How many teenagers are put on strong medications because of headaches? Most important–is there a viable, cost-effective, time-effective alternative to putting our kids on headache meds?

According to a survey published in the American Family Physician journal, headaches affect one-third of children age seven years and up and one-half of children age 15 and up. Another article stated 17% of adolescents between ages 12 and 19 report frequent or severe headaches. 7 to 10% of adolescents report having migraines, and, no surprise to  parents of kids with migraines, these kids miss more than twice as much school as kids without migraines.

An article published in the Pediatrics journal found that the incidence of headaches and migraines in children and adolescents has “increased substantially over the last 30 years.” (For those of you who like numbers: the incidence of migraine without aura was 14.5 per 1000 in 1974 and rose to 91.9 per 1000 by 2002.) Almost 40% of kids with migraines take prescription drugs, many despite suffering somewhat nasty side-effects such as sleepiness, fatigue, difficulty thinking, racing heartbeat, chest pressure, nausea and muscle weakness. And, most headache specialists agree, even the best medications are only effective about half the time.

So, why so many kids with troublesome headaches and migraines, and why are the numbers increasing? Migraines are now known to be associated with nervous system dysfunction. Specifically, prolonged stimulation of the “fight or flight” part of our nervous system leads to a chemical imbalance, which in turn causes a painful migraine. During times of stress, the muscles of the upper back, neck and jaw get activated, leading to a headache. Are kids under more stress now? In the “fight or flight” mode A LOT (or all the time)? Yes, I believe they definitely are.

I also believe we have the tools to change this. We can’t take stress away (nor would we want to), but we can change to a more healthy response. We all, with practice and attention, can learn better breathing patterns. We can learn what it feels like to let go of tension and allow free, easy movement. We can change the pattern of “fight or flight” dominance to a more balanced, sustainable, significantly less painful pattern.

Gil and I have had a lot of success with headache patients, especially kids. We actually like treating headaches, because people get better, and they don’t expect to. They expect either to be medicated or to suffer. Or both. But they don’t expect to get better. So it’s a lot of fun when they do.

In the next post I’ll write about a high school girl, a past patient of ours, who went from missing school and quitting sports teams to being relatively headache-free and playing on the basketball team again. To paraphrase Joey Tribbiani (“Friends”), “It’s not rocket surgery.” But it works.



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