More and more children and adolescents suffer from headaches, their proportion has been steadily increasing for years. What are the reasons? And how can they be helped?
WHEN JENNY blinks her eyes or presses her fingertips against her temples, her mother Vera suspects that the eleven-year-old has a headache coming on. It throbs under the top of her skull, presses against her forehead and creates a persistent feeling of tension. "Jenny has a headache attack at least two or three times a month," reports Vera, "and bed rest is usually the only thing that helps. Open the windows, close the curtains, no light, no noise. With luck, it's over the next day."
According to studies, more than 40 percent of all infants, children and adolescents between the ages of 3 and 17 suffer from occasional headaches. Symptoms vary. The largest proportion experience tension headaches – the head feels as if it is being squeezed by a ring. Of the 7- to 14-year-olds, just under 10 percent even struggle with migraines, which are genetic, but not exclusive. This means that today's children reach headache frequencies far earlier than those that normally only occur in adulthood. Experts estimate that the number of sufferers is up to eight times higher, because many of them do not seek medical help. Headaches are a complex disease, and physicians distinguish between far more than 200 types. The search for its causes is equally complex. There is no generally conclusive explanation, too many individual statements – in many cases also not sufficiently verifiable – do not allow this. However, behavior and the environment, for example, are considered starting points: everyday life and thus the social environment of children and adolescents have changed, life has become more unsettled. In most cases, both parents work, globalization requires more changes of location than in the past, and time pressure and the strain on each individual have increased. In addition, adolescents face a multitude of stimuli and distractions: For example, the always-available Internet, computers, smartphones, but also closely timed activities in their free time, such as tutoring, music, theater group, sports and more – everything should be used and pursued in moderation and not excessively. Nutrition and drinking habits also play an important role: it is not uncommon for students to miss regular meals, often come to class without breakfast, eat sugary snacks throughout the day, and drink far too little. Pressure to perform, school stress, bullying, and lack of exercise also contribute to children and adolescents suffering more from headaches. The same applies to sleep patterns: Sufficient sleep helps to reduce the occurrence of tension headaches and migraines, while alcohol and tobacco consumption counteract this. It is helpful to keep a headache diary in which you note down when and where the pain occurs. This makes it easier to assess the attacks: For example, do they occur frequently before classwork, during computer games, on weekends? If the trigger is known, you can at least adjust to it, and the fear of a pain attack decreases.
When is the right time for a child to seek medical help cannot be determined in general terms. Younger children in particular often find it difficult to recognize headaches at all. They are not yet able to name the pain with any certainty and may confuse headaches with earaches, toothaches or stomachaches. The only thing that helps is close observation over a longer period of time: How does the son or daughter behave? If they only suffer from occasional headaches, but are otherwise lively and participate in everyday life, then a visit to a doctor is not urgent. "But if the pain persists even after resting the next day, if it restricts the child considerably, if he or she renounces cherished habits, withdraws, or if alarm symptoms such as vomiting or weight loss are added - then professional help should be sought. In rare cases, an infection or a brain tumor, for example, could also be hiding behind this type of headache," says Prof. Hermann Girschick, head physician at the Clinic for Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at Vivantes Friedrichshain Hospital. "Please administer medication only after consultation with your doctor!" If a symptomatic headache can be ruled out, Professor Girschick also recommends linking up with a headache consultation, where the child can receive multidisciplinary treatment and support. "In the two social pediatric centers of Vivantes, specialized physicians, psychologists and physiotherapists take care of the young patients."