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Headaches in Children

Types and causes of headaches in children

There are 2 types of headaches:

  • Primary headaches just happen. They aren't caused by a health problem.
  • Secondary headaches are caused by a health problem

What primary headaches can children get?

Migraines and tension-type headaches are the 2 most common types of primary headaches that children get. When your child has these headaches often, they might be called chronic headaches. 

Migraines

A migraine is usually a moderate to very bad headache. The pain often feels like a pounding or throbbing. A migraine is usually on one side of the head, but it can be on both sides. Some children get an aura, which is a feeling or symptom that happens before or when a migraine starts. Auras are different for everyone, but most are visual, such as seeing coloured spots, wavy lines, dots, or lights. An aura can also be a symptom like feeling numb or weak.

A migraine can last from 1 to 72 hours (3 days). Migraines can get worse when your child is active.

With a migraine, your child might:

  • not feel hungry
  • throw up (vomit)
  • have stomach pain
  • feel sick to their stomach (nausea)
  • be more sensitive to light (photophobia)
  • be more sensitive to sound (phonophobia)

If your child gets complicated migraines, there may be nervous system (neurological) symptoms before, during, or after the migraine such as:

  • weakness in their arms, legs, or both
  • double vision (because eye movements are weaker)
  • feeling unsteady when walking

Tension-type headaches

A tension-type headache feels like a dull tightening or pressing on the head. There is no nausea with this type of headache. Your child can still do regular activities with a tension-type headache.

Chronic headaches

Migraines or tension-type headaches might be called chronic headaches when your child starts to have them often, such as many or most days of the month.

Your child might start with a headache that never seems to go away. This is called new-daily persistent headache. It can be hard to treat.

We don’t know why your child might start to get more headaches. But sometimes it happens when your child has other problems like depression or anxiety.

If your child gets chronic headaches, they might:

  • feel dizzy
  • have sleep problems
  • feel tired
  • feel anxious
  • have trouble concentrating
  • be sad

What causes primary headaches?

We know more about migraines than ever before, but we don’t fully understand what causes them. Migraines do run in families, meaning they have a genetic cause.

During a migraine part of the brain gets more sensitive to things like light and noise. The brain releases chemicals, which might affect the size of the blood vessels.

During a migraine aura, some brain cells “power down” (like a computer) for a few minutes and then “power up” again without causing any harm.

For tension-type headaches, we still don’t know exactly what causes them.

What causes secondary headaches?

There are many causes of secondary headaches. Health problems that cause headaches are often easy to treat. Common causes of headaches are illnesses (like influenza or other virus) and too much caffeine or alcohol.

Could my child's headache be the sign of a brain tumour?

You or your child might worry that a brain tumour is causing their headaches. Brain tumours are not a common cause of headaches. Have a doctor check your child to find out what is causing the headaches.

If your child has symptoms like unsteady walking or acting differently, and the symptoms don’t go away between headaches, take your child to a doctor.

Current as of: October 25, 2021

Author: Pediatric Neurology, Alberta Health Services