For kids around the country it's back-to-school time. But for many of them, it's also the return of headache season.
Doctors say frequent headaches and migraines are among the most common childhood health complaints, yet the problem gets surprisingly little attention from the medical community. Many pediatricians and parents view migraines as an adult condition. And because many children complain of headaches more often during the school year than the summer, parents often think a child is exaggerating symptoms to get out of schoolwork.
Often the real issue, say doctors, is that changes in a child's sleep schedule, including getting up early for school and staying up late to study, as well as skipping breakfast, not drinking enough water and weather changes can all trigger migraines when the school year starts.
"In many areas people just don't think kids can get migraines," says Dr. Andrew Hershey, professor of pediatrics and neurology and director of the headache center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. "But kids shouldn't be missing activities and having trouble at school because they're having headaches. If it happens, it shouldn't be ignored."
Migraine is an inherited neurological condition characterized by severe, often disabling headache pain. During a migraine attack, a number of changes occur throughout the brain causing dilation of blood vessels; severe pain; increased sensitivity to lights, sounds and smells; nausea and vomiting; and other symptoms. It's estimated that about 10 percent of young children and up to 28 percent of older teenagers suffer from migraines. (Hormonal changes during puberty can also be a trigger.)
But childhood migraine often doesn't show up the same way as an adult migraine. While adult migraines often last four hours or more, in a child, the duration of a migraine can range from as little as one hour up to 72 hours. In adults, migraines typically settle on one side of the head, but in children migraine pain is often felt across the front of the forehead or on both temples rather than on just one side. As a result, childhood migraines are often dismissed as sinus headaches.