Posted: Nov 13, 2012 8:00 AM
Headaches can be extremely frustrating and sometimes debilitating for teens. Clues to the underlying causes often lie in your teen's daily habits of eating, sleeping and exercising. By keeping a headache diary, you'll be on your way to unraveling the mystery.

It's estimated that 20-30 percent of teens suffer from recurrent headaches. They can be altogether annoying and sometimes debilitating for an active teen trying to juggle their full schedules of school and extracurricular activities.

Half of these headaches are of the tension type — meaning they are of the constricting/dull/aching variety that puts pressure on the front and sides of the head. The other half are migraines that are more severe and are described as pounding/throbbing and are typically associated with other symptoms, such as: auras, nausea and/or vomiting.

In both cases, there are notable triggers that, once identified, can help adolescents avoid these frustrating headaches and welcome more headache free days.

Common headache triggers

  • Sleep deprivation: Remember teens need 8.5-9.5 hours per night. With their natural inclination to stay up later and sleep in, missed sleep is a frequent headache trigger.
  • Dehydration: I see this a lot too. Teens forget to drink water throughout their busy day.
  • Too much screen time: With computers, iPads, and iPhones taking over our teens' media landscape — staring into a blue screen can trigger headaches. Not to mention the flashing lights and loud sounds of video games.
  • Stress: Both emotional and physical stressors take their toll on teens. Make sure you remind them to have some downtime during the day. They need it.
  • Vision problems: Something as simple as being near-sighted can cause headaches. Have your teen's vision tested if you're concerned about this.
  • Skipped meals: Adolescents are notorious for going all day without eating. They come home from school ravenous and wonder why their head is pounding. Encourage them to eat breakfast and bring along some healthy snacks to school.
  • Alcohol/tobacco/caffeine: When it comes to these big three, what you put in your body does matter. Too much caffeine (either in the form of coffee or caffeinated energy drinks) can trigger headaches. As can smoking and drinking alcohol.
  • For girls: Changes in hormones during menstruation can also trigger headaches.

In addition to the above, infections such as strep throat, colds and the flu can all induce headaches. Obesity and lack of exercise has also been shown to be correlated with an increased incidence of them.

Keeping a diary

With all the potential headache triggers, it's easy to see how a headache diary could prove useful. Have a notebook where your teen can jot down when the headache occurred. How long it lasted. What was done (if anything) to make it better. Remind her to include how she slept the previous night, what she ate that day and if she drank enough water.

Include how it felt and where on the head it occurred. Were there any associated symptoms? Did the headache follow an injury? By keeping this diary, patterns may emerge and you'll be one step closer to helping your teen say goodbye to headaches.

Red flags

While most headaches are nothing serious to worry about — it's important to know reasons to investigate further and seek medical attention:

  • Frequent headaches (occurring weekly). Even if they are mild, they should be thoroughly evaluated.
  • Headaches that are severe — the worst of my life types — and/or that don't go away easily.
  • Headaches that wake up your child due to pain or a child who wakes up with a headache.
  • One that follows a head injury.
  • One that is associated with seizures.
  • Occurs in conjunction with recurrent vomiting, dizziness, coordination problems or other neurological symptoms.

Dr. MOm's Bottom Line^Headaches in teens are extremely common. Most can be treated by determining their triggers and fine tuning their eating, sleeping and exercise habits. If you're ever worried about your teen's headaches, it's always best to have them evaluated by their healthcare provider.

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