School, practice, homework, tests and more – is your teen’s schedule giving her a headache? Don’t reach for pain relievers just yet. Some teen headaches can be easily remedied while others may actually require medical attention.
Read on to learn what kind of headache your teen is experiencing and what to do when the pain strikes.
Identify the type
All headaches aren’t created equal. Primary headaches make up the largest group with the most common being tension headaches, says Dr. Lalitha Sivaswamy, medical director of the Headache Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Tension-type headaches are mild with dull pain around the head, neck or shoulders, and generally don’t last long.
Migraine headaches are often more intense and longer lasting. Symptoms of migraines can include throbbing or pounding on one side of the head, abdominal pain, nausea or vomiting, and light or sound sensitivity – bad enough your teen may just want to lie down. “About one-third of children who have migraine headaches have a family history of them,” she says, “and they are more prevalent in women.”
Secondary headaches are rare, but any headache accompanied by impaired vision or weakness may signal a more serious underlying health issue and should be treated by a physician.
Pinpoint the cause
Understand the source of a headache, and you can more effectively treat it. Tension headaches are often caused by lack of sleep, excess scheduling and anxiety. Other headache and migraine triggers include skipping meals, dehydration, smoking or drinking, and caffeine withdrawal from missing a daily latte or soda. Too much Internet, video games and TV screen time are also big contributors.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, adolescent hormonal changes, like menstrual cycles, can also bring on migraines. Think of what’s happening in your teen’s life to try and uncover the cause of her headache.
“Athletic teens are more likely to experience head trauma,” Dr. Sivaswamy says. “Since parents aren’t always with their kids, they should ask questions to find out if their child had a recent fall or sports injury.”
Heal the headache
Got an overscheduled teen? Give them some downtime to relieve stress-induced headaches. Dehydration and hunger triggers can be fixed with dietary changes. Encourage your teen to drink six to eight cups of water daily – not pop or juice – and to avoid skipping meals. Some types of foods, like processed meats, can occasionally cause headaches. Be aware of triggers and cut back.
“I think the most important thing is to have the child lay down, turn off the lights and sleep,” says Dr. Sivaswamy. You can also try a dose of Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen), but doses depend on age and weight, so ask your pediatrician for the correct amount. Be careful, though. Using pain meds on a consistent basis over long periods of time can lead to analgesic overuse and more headaches. Ask the doctor for natural supplements and techniques your teen can try instead.
Seek medical help
“If headaches are in a consistent pattern and your child is not responding to Tylenol or Motrin over a couple of days, then it’s better to have them checked out by their pediatrician,” says Dr. Sivaswamy.
If your teen complains first thing in the morning, has blurry or double vision, call the doctor. Any type of vision impairment, numbness, tingling or weakness on half of the body should be taken seriously, she says, and parents should consult their child’s physician right away to rule out another underlying cause.
Illustration by Mino Watanabe
This post was originally published in 2013 is updated regularly.