To learn about the nature of your child's headache, your doctor will likely look to:
- Headache history. Your doctor asks you and your child to describe the headaches in detail, to see if there's a pattern or a common trigger. Your doctor may also ask you to keep a headache diary for a time, so you can record more details about your child's headaches, such as frequency, severity of pain and possible triggers.
- Physical exam. The doctor performs a physical exam, including measuring your child's height, weight, head circumference, blood pressure and pulse, and examining your child's eyes, neck, head, shoulders and spine.
- Neurological exam. Your doctor checks for any problems with movement, coordination or sensation.
If your child is otherwise healthy and headaches are the only symptom, no further testing usually is needed. In a few cases, however, imaging scans and other evaluations can help pinpoint a diagnosis or rule out other medical conditions that could be causing the headaches. These tests may include:
- Computerized tomography (CT) scan. This imaging procedure uses a series of computer-directed X-rays that provide a cross-sectional view of your child's brain. This helps doctors diagnose tumors, infections and other medical problems that can cause headaches.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRIs use a powerful magnet to produce detailed views of the brain. MRI scans help doctors diagnose tumors, strokes, aneurysms, neurological diseases and other brain abnormalities. An MRI can also be used to examine the blood vessels that supply the brain.
- Spinal tap (lumbar puncture). If your doctor suspects that an underlying condition, such as bacterial or viral meningitis, is causing your child's headaches, he or she may recommend a spinal tap (lumbar puncture). In this procedure, a thin needle is inserted between two vertebrae in the lower back to extract a sample of cerebrospinal fluid for laboratory analysis.
Usually you can treat your child's headache at home with rest, decreased noise, plenty of fluids, balanced meals and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. If your child is older and has frequent headaches, learning to relax and manage stress through different forms of therapy may help, as well.
- OTC pain relievers. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) can typically relieve headaches for your child. They should be taken at the first sign of a headache.
Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. Aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
- Prescription medications. Triptans, prescription drugs used to treat migraines, are effective and can be used safely in children older than 6 years of age.
If your child experiences nausea and vomiting with migraines, your doctor may prescribe an anti-nausea drug. The medication strategy differs from child to child, however. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about nausea relief.
Caution: Overuse of medications is itself a contributing factor to headaches (rebound headache). Over time, painkillers and other medications may lose their effectiveness. In addition, all medications have side effects. If your child takes medications regularly, including products you buy over-the-counter, discuss the risks and benefits with your doctor.
While stress doesn't appear to cause headaches, it can act as a trigger for headaches or make a headache worse. Depression and other mental health disorders also can play a role. For these situations, your doctor may recommend one or more behavior therapies, such as:
- Relaxation training. Relaxation techniques include deep breathing, yoga, meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, which is accomplished by tensing one muscle at a time, and then completely releasing the tension, until every muscle in the body is relaxed. An older child can learn relaxation techniques in classes or at home using books or tapes.
- Biofeedback training. Biofeedback teaches your child to control certain body responses that help reduce pain. During a biofeedback session, your child is connected to devices that monitor and give feedback on body functions, such as muscle tension, heart rate and blood pressure.
Your child then learns how to reduce muscle tension and slow his or her heart rate and breathing. The goal of biofeedback is to help your child enter a relaxed state to better cope with pain.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. This therapy can help your child learn to manage stress and reduce the frequency and severity of headaches. During this type of talk therapy, a counselor helps your child learn ways to view and cope with life events more positively.
Lifestyle and home remedies
OTC pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others), are usually effective in reducing headache pain. Before giving your child pain medication, keep these points in mind:
- Read labels carefully and use only the dosages recommended for your child.
- Don't give doses more frequently than recommended.
- Don't give your child OTC pain medication more than two or three days a week. Daily use can trigger a rebound headache, a type of headache caused by overuse of pain medications.
- Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
In addition to OTC pain medications, the following can help ease your child's headache:
- Rest and relaxation. Encourage your child to rest in a dark, quiet room. Sleeping often resolves headaches in children.
- Use a cool, wet compress. While your child rests, place a cool, wet cloth on his or her forehead.
- Offer a healthy snack. If your child hasn't eaten in a while, offer a piece of fruit, whole-wheat crackers or low-fat cheese. Not eating can make headaches worse.
Although they haven't been well-studied, a number of dietary supplements have been suggested to help children's headaches, including:
- Coenzyme Q10
- Vitamin D
Check with your child's doctor before trying any herbal products or dietary supplements to be sure they won't interact with your child's medicine or have harmful side effects.
Several alternative treatments may also be helpful for headaches in children, including:
- Acupuncture. Acupuncture practitioners use extremely thin, disposable needles that generally cause little pain or discomfort. Some research has suggested that this treatment may help relieve headache symptoms.
- Massage. Massage can help reduce stress and relieve tension, and may help ease headaches.
Preparing for your appointment
Typically, you make an appointment with your family doctor or your child's pediatrician. Depending on the frequency and severity of your child's symptoms, you may be referred to a doctor who specializes in conditions of the brain and nervous system (neurologist).
Here's information to help you get ready for your child's appointment and to know what to expect from the doctor.
What you can do
- Write down your child's signs and symptoms, when they occurred, and how long they lasted. It may help to keep a headache diary — listing each headache, when it happens, how long it lasts and what might have caused it.
- Make a list of all medications, vitamins or supplements your child is taking.
- Write down questions to ask your doctor.
For headaches in children, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What's the most likely cause of the symptoms?
- Are tests needed to confirm the diagnosis?
- What treatments are available and which do you recommend?
- Does my child need prescription medication, or would an over-the-counter medication work?
- What follow-up, if any, is needed?
- What can we do at home to lessen the pain?
- What can we do at home to prevent headaches?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you a number of questions, including:
- When did the symptoms start? Have they changed over time?
- How often does your child experience these symptoms?
- How long does the headache usually last?
- Where does the pain occur?
- Have the symptoms been continuous or intermittent?
- Does your child have other symptoms, such as nausea or dizziness?
- Does anything make your child's symptoms better?
- Does anything make the symptoms worse?
- What treatments have you tried?
- What medications does your child take?
- Do other family members get headaches?
What you can do in the meantime
Until you see your child's doctor, if your child has a headache, place a cool, wet cloth on your child's forehead and encourage him or her to rest in a dark, quiet room.
Consider giving your child over-the-counter pain medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Children's Motrin, others) to ease symptoms.
Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Though aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin.
This is because aspirin has been linked to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially life-threatening condition, in such children. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.