For Some Kids, School Is a Headache

Headaches may be more common for children at back-to-school time

If your child is complaining about a headache, he or she may be trying to get out of school. On the other hand, there might be something else going on.

A new study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH, found that children’s headaches tend to increase in fall — just when school reopens for the year.

"When we saw many of our families and patients in clinic, the families would report that their child or teenager’s headaches would increase during the school year," said lead study author Ann Pakalnis, MD, an attending neurologist and director of the Comprehensive Headache Clinic at the Nationwide Children's Hospital, in a press release. "So we decided to go back and look at emergency department visits for that time period and see if there were more visits here at certain seasonal variations during the year."

Dr. Pakalnis and team looked at about 1,300 emergency department visits from 2010 to 2014.

Headaches increased in the fall among kids ages 5 to 18, with tension headaches and migraines being the most common types.

Migraines headaches typically cause nausea and vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound and smell.

Tension headaches, on the other hand, are less serious and tend to feel more like a tightening of the head.

According to these researchers, the start of the school year can be riddled with headache triggers, such as academic and extracurricular stresses, schedule changes and inadequate sleep. Other triggers can include skipping meals, mild dehydration, too much caffeine, lack of exercise and too much screen time.

Migraines were found to show up around puberty in teen girls, but diminish around the same time for teen boys.

"We see a lot of headaches in young boys, from five to nine years of age, and in boys they tend to get better in later adolescence," Dr. Pakalnis said. "In teenage girls, migraines oftentimes make their first presentation around the time of puberty and unfortunately tend to persist into adulthood."

Dr. Pakalnis and team said kids should eat regular meals, drink enough water, get regular exercise, and sleep enough to ease discomfort and prevent headaches.

"A sudden, severe headache or a change in the headache sensation from previous, what we call ‘first or worst’ headaches should be evaluated," said Howard Jacobs, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University, in the release. "Another good rule of thumb is that if the headaches are interfering with a child’s normal routine, then it is time to get them evaluated, so therapy can be instituted to return your child’s life to normal.”

This study has not yet been published. No funding sources or conflicts of interest were disclosed.