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Published on June 15, 2018

Headaches: Migraines, in Children and Reducing Stress


In this Fox 8 House Call series, Cone Health experts explore headaches, including:


Approximately 39 million Americans experience migraines, including men, women and children. A migraine is a type of a headache that can be moderate to severe in intensity, pulsating, unilateral, and last between 4-72 hours. It can also be accompanied by sensitivity to light, sounds and smells, nausea and/or vomiting, but symptoms can vary from person to person and from one migraine to the next. While the precise cause of migraines is unknown, those with a family history of migraines tend to be at a higher risk of developing them.

Migraines can happen to anyone, and in many cases, over-the-counter medication can relieve the symptoms of an occasional migraine. If you get to the point where you need to take something every day, talk to your doctor. Daily use of pain relievers can end up causing migraines, making the chronic condition worse. When you start to experience them on a regular basis and they start to interfere with your daily activities, it may be time to talk to your doctor about treatment options.

Other symptoms that you should talk to your doctor about may include vision changes, fever, confusion and weakness.

Depending on the triggers of the migraines, treatment must be individualized to each patient and often involves a combination of medications and lifestyle modifications. Keeping a headache diary can help you track different migraine triggers so you can find ways to reduce their impact. Reducing stress, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, exercising regularly or avoiding food triggers (such as red wine, chocolate, diet sweeteners or caffeine) are lifestyle modifications you can make yourself that can make an impact on the number of migraines you have, but they aren’t a guaranteed cure.

When lifestyle changes aren’t enough, your doctor may recommend other treatment such as over-the-counter medication to treat migraines when you get them, a prescribed medication that is taken daily to help prevent them or Botox injections. It’s important to treat migraines quickly and aggressively to stop them before they get worse. Unfortunately, migraines cause more migraines, so preventing one from progressing can help prevent them from occurring later.

If you or someone you know is experiencing migraine symptoms, and over-the-counter medicines are no longer working, it is time to seek the help of a headache specialist.

Dr. Antonia Ahern is a neurologist at Guilford Neurological Associates and a member of the Cone Health Medical Group.

Headaches in Children

Headaches are one of the most common complaints in children. More than 50% of children and teenagers will have a headache at some point in their life, although recurrent and daily headaches will be found in 30% and 2-5% of children, respectively. A primary headache, like a migraine or a tension headache, can occur on its own while a secondary headache is normally tied to another illness or from head trauma.

Having a close family member that experiences headaches can give a child a genetic tendency to also experience them, but headaches can also be caused by a variety of triggers, such as:

      • Dehydration
      • Lack of sleep
      • Allergies (seasonal or food)
      • Anxiety and stress related to school or family social issues
      • Depression
      • Too much screen time

Some children may have a migraine variant where a headache is not the main symptom. Instead, it may present with abdominal pain, frequent vomiting, dizziness, vertigo, confusion or total or partial paralysis of one side of the body. Different triggers affect each person, and no two headaches are exactly the same. In most cases, headaches aren’t a sign of a larger issue, but if your child experiences headaches frequently, you should talk to their doctor.

Dr. Reza Nabizadeh is a pediatric neurologist at Cone Health Child Neurology.

How to Reduce Stress

A common headache trigger is stress and learning to manage stress, may help you minimize the occurrence of headaches. Stress is a natural part of life that everyone experiences and a certain amount of stress can be beneficial, as it can help us meet deadlines and stay on top of our responsibilities. However, when we get stuck in the cycle of stress, it can start to affect our day to day life.

No matter how stressful your life seems, there are steps you can take to relieve the pressure and regain control. Instead of repeating the cycle of stress and stress response, take control by creating a new pattern: stress, respond, recover, reflect and adapt to each situation. A few healthy ways to manage stress include:

      • Track your stress – Keep track of the things that cause stress because you can’t change what you don’t measure! There are many apps available that can help.
      • Identify the sources of your stress – Do you rush through your day without time to eat and get in a bad mood from not eating? Develop a plan on how to make sure you have time to eat.
      • Practice mindfulness – Be fully present in the moment with what’s going on around you.
      • Be physically active - Regular physical activity can improve mood, reduce stress, and decrease health risks. It also increases endorphins, improves sleep, raises self-esteem and releases muscle tension. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to reduce stress!
      • Practice deep breathing – Take six to seven deep breaths when you start to feel stressed when you’re leaving work or entering into a new situation. Use this to gain control over stress, anxiety and panic quickly. This is one of the fastest ways to deal with stress at the moment.
      • Plan pleasant activities - When you spend time in activities that make you feel good, you tend to feel less distressed and happier. Life demands seem to replace pleasant activities – it is time to make positive activities a priority.

Try to take your time to consider each stressor that you encounter before you respond. In most situations, you don’t need to rush to react. Acknowledge the stress occurred, reflect on how you handled it and think of what you can do differently next time. We all respond to stress differently, so there’s no “one size fits all” solution.

Jennifer Becker, MS, LPC, is a manager for the Cone Health Employee Assistance Counseling Program.

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