Teenagers and Headaches

Headaches don’t just cause pain in your head. You may feel a sharp pain, dull ache, or throbbing in various areas of your head. The pain can also affect your face and neck. A headache may seem like something only adults complain about when they’re stressed. However, headaches are one of the most common problems reported by children and teenagers. Nearly 75% of children have reported having a significant headache by the age of 15. Most headaches in teens are minor and can be easily treated. However, some headaches can be severe and may be a sign of a more serious condition.

Path to Improved Health

There are various types of headaches. Tension headaches are the most common type experienced by teens. They are usually caused by stress, tension, or depression. They can also be caused by eye strain and neck or back strain from having poor posture. Tension headaches usually cause a mild to moderate ache or pressure in a “band” across the forehead. Your teen might have this kind of headache occasionally or chronically (more than 15 times a month).

Help your teen avoid tension headaches by following these tips:

  • Relax. Find ways to work in free time in a busy schedule. Manage your stress from family, friends, work, or school.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Skipping meals and not eating a nutritious diet can contribute to headaches.
  • Get enough sleep. Unplug from electronics and go to bed at a decent time each night.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. The effects of alcohol and drug use can cause headaches, as well as many other health problems.
  • Exercise your body. Physical activity reduces stress and helps you sleep better. Your body releases endorphins during exercise. These are your body’s natural painkillers.
  • Exercise your eyes. Eye strain causes headaches. As we spend more time staring at screens, it’s important to give your eyes a break. Look away from your screen at least every 20 minutes.
  • Use heat or ice. Apply heat, such as a heating pad, or an ice pack (wrapped in a towel) to sore muscles. A hot bath or shower may also help.
  • Watch your posture. Try to keep your back and shoulders straight when walking and sitting.

Tension headaches can usually be treated by taking over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. These include ibuprofen (brand names: Advil, Motrin), acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol), and naproxen (brand name: Aleve). If these medicines don’t seem to help, talk to your family doctor about other options. There are pain relievers that combine caffeine or sedatives and even prescription medicines that might help.

Do not give aspirin for headache treatment to children under the age of 15. It can cause Reye’s syndrome, a rare disorder children can get when recovering from an illness.

Your teen may also experience other types of headaches.

  • Acute headaches usually happen because of an illness, infection (such as sinusitis, or sinus infection), cold, or fever. But they can also be caused by tension. These headaches can cause sharp or throbbing pain in the head, neck, or face. They can be treated with OTC pain relievers and usually go away once the medical problem is treated or tension is relieved.
  • Cluster headaches strike quickly and cause severe pain, usually around one eye but can spread across your face, head, neck, and shoulders. These happen in “cluster periods” that can last weeks or months. These types of headaches are rare and can be treated with medicine.
  • Migraine headaches cause moderate to severe pain and throbbing in the front and both sides of the head. Your teen may also experience dizziness, blurred vision, fever, stomach upset, and even vomiting. He or she may be very sensitive to light, smells, and noise and want to sleep when experiencing a migraine.

Talk to your doctor about medicines and other treatment options for migraine headaches. Keep track of your teen’s migraine triggers, such as lack of sleep, certain foods, environmental changes, or stress. If you know what triggers them, you can help your teen try to avoid getting a migraine.

How do I know if my teen’s headaches are a sign of something more serious?

If your teen is experiencing severe symptoms such as sudden loss of balance, numbness, paralysis, speech difficulties, or seizures, seek medical attention right away. Call your family doctor; he or she may want you to go straight to the emergency room.

Most headaches are easily treatable and are not a sign of a more serious medical problem. Headaches may improve as your teen gets older. However, if your teen’s headaches are becoming more frequent, the pain and symptoms are getting worse, and/or pain medicines do not seem to be helping, it’s time to visit your family doctor.

He or she will ask about your teen’s health history and details about their headaches. Keep a detailed log to track their headache triggers, symptoms, frequency, and treatments. Your doctor will perform a physical exam. He or she will look for problems with your teen’s temperature, breathing, pulse, and blood pressure. If they suspect a central nervous system problem, they will order or perform a CT scan or MRI test to look for abnormal areas in the brain.

In rare occasions, chronic, progressive headaches can be a sign of a serious underlying medical problem in your teen. These conditions could include:

  • Brain infections.
  • Meningitis (inflammation of the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord).
  • Hydrocephalus (abnormal fluid build-up on the brain).
  • Blood clots.
  • Tumors and abscesses.
  • Head trauma.

Things to Consider

Headaches, especially migraines, can be hereditary. Children who have migraines usually have at least one parent who gets them, as well. They may inherit abnormalities in some areas of the brain. They may also inherit the tendency to be affected by migraine triggers such as bright lights and weather changes. It is important to tell your doctor if your teen has a family history of headaches or neurological disease.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • How do I know when my teen’s headaches are severe enough to need further testing?
  • How long should I wait to see if OTC pain relievers are working before trying different medicines?
  • Will alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and massage, help relieve my teen’s headache symptoms?


American Migraine Foundation: Headaches in Kids: What Parents Can Do to Help

Mayo Clinic: Tension Headaches