Researchers Say Back to School Headaches Often Real

By Pat Anson, Editor

With summer nearly over and millions of children heading back to school, many parents will hear a familiar refrain:

“I’ve got a headache. Can I stay home from school?”

While parents may be tempted to think their child dreads going back to school and just wants to prolong summer a little longer, kids now have research to back them up.

In a study of emergency room visits by children, researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio found that pediatric headaches do indeed increase in the fall – often because children are stressed out by abrupt changes in their summer routines, nutrition and sleep patterns.

“When we saw many of our families and patients in clinic, the families would report that their child or teenager’s headaches would increase during the school year,” said lead researcher Ann Pakalnis, MD, a neurologist and Director of the Comprehensive Headache Clinic at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

“So, we decided to go back and look at emergency department visits for that time period and see if there were more visits here at certain seasonal variations during the year.”

Pakalnis and her colleagues analyzed about 1,300 emergency room visits to the hospital by children from 2010 to 2014. The number of pediatric headaches was stable throughout the year, except for the fall – when headaches in school aged children surged by nearly a third.

"We see a lot of headaches in young boys, from five to nine years of age, and in boys they tend to get better in later adolescence,” said Pakalnis, who is also a professor of Clinical Pediatrics and Neurology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “In teenage girls, migraines oftentimes make their first presentation around the time of puberty and unfortunately tend to persist into adulthood.”

The two types of headaches seen most often by physicians are tension headaches and migraines. About 20 percent of all pediatric patients 11 years and older suffer from migraine, which are often associated with nausea and vomiting, as well as sensitivity to light, sound and smell. Tension headaches tend to feel more like a painful tightening around the head.

The increase in fall headaches may be attributed to a number of factors, including academic and social stress, schedule changes and an increase in extracurricular activity. Other common headache triggers include lack of sleep, too much caffeine, lack of exercise and too much time on a computer or mobile device.

Researchers say headaches can often be prevented, just by getting three meals a day, drinking enough liquids, and getting adequate sleep.

“Your brain is like your cell phone,” said Howard Jacobs, MD, a headache specialist at Nationwide Children’s. “If you don’t plug your cell phone in, it doesn’t have energy, it doesn’t work well. If you don’t plug your brain in by providing energy, it doesn’t work well and that causes headaches.”

If headaches persist or get worse, Jacobs says a doctor should be seen.

“A sudden, severe headache or a change in the headache sensation from previous, what we call ‘first or worst’ headaches should be evaluated,” said Jacobs. “Another good rule of thumb is that if the headaches are interfering with a child’s normal routine, then it is time to get them evaluated, so therapy can be instituted to return your child’s life to normal.”

Nationwide Children’s Hospital produced this video about the headache study:

For tension headaches, doctors say over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or naproxen can be helpful, but they can make headaches worse if taken too often.

Until recently, treatment options have been limited for children with migraine.

In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Treximet for pediatric migraine patients 12 years of age and older. Treximet is the first approved prescription drug for migraine to contain both sumatriptan and naproxen. Sumatriptan is a triptan that works in the brain by reducing vascular inflammation. Treximet was approved by the FDA for use by adults in 2008.

In June, the FDA also approved Zomig nasal spray for the treatment of migraine in pediatric patients 12 and older. Zomig provides pain relief in as little as 15 minutes, with most patients obtaining some relief in about two hours. Zomig was approved for use by adults in 2003.