What is tension headache in children?

Tension headache in children: Overview

Headaches are a common problem for children. Tension headaches are often caused or "triggered" by physical or emotional stress. Other triggers include feeling fatigued, skipping meals, and grinding or clenching teeth. Frequent use of pain medicine can also make tension headaches more frequent and severe.

Most headaches in children are not a sign of a more serious problem and will get better on their own. Home treatment may help your child feel better faster.

What are the symptoms of a tension headache in children?

Tension headaches usually cause a constant pain or pressure on both sides of the head. Your child may feel tightness around their forehead. They may also have aching pain at their temples or the back of their head and neck. The pain usually isn't severe.

How are tension headaches in children treated?

Tension headaches can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers, such as children's acetaminophen or ibuprofen. If this doesn't help, or if the headaches happen often, your doctor may prescribe other medicines. Home treatment, such as resting and managing stress, can also help your child feel better.

If your child's headaches are severe or happen often, your doctor may prescribe a daily medicine. This is to help prevent them. The medicine may also be prescribed if your child's headaches interfere with school or other activities. Have your child take the medicine every day, even if they don't have a headache.

How are tension headaches in children diagnosed?

Your child's doctor will do a physical exam and ask questions, such as how often the headaches occur and what the symptoms are. The doctor will ask about your child's overall health.

Tension headaches can be similar to other kinds of headaches, which may have different treatments. So it's important for the doctor to find out what kind of headache your child has. The doctor can rule out other health problems that may be related to the headaches.

It's common for parents to feel concerned about their child's headaches. You may feel that more testing is needed to rule out serious causes. But doctors often can find out the type and the cause of the headaches without using other tests.

In some cases, imaging and other tests may be recommended to rule out other health problems. But this isn't common. These tests include:

  • MRI or CT scan.
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG).
  • Lumbar puncture.

How can you care for a child who has a tension headache?

Here are some steps you can take to treat your child's tension headaches at home.

  • Have your child rest in a quiet, dark room. Most headaches will go away within 24 hours with rest or sleep. Watching TV or reading can often make the headache worse.
  • Give acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for pain. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Be careful about using pain relievers every day, because over time this can make your child's headaches worse.
  • You can give your child water. Don't give your child drinks that contain caffeine. Fluids may help the headache go away faster.
  • Put a cold, moist cloth or cold pack on the painful area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the cold pack and your child's skin.
  • Heat can help relax your child's muscles. Try a warm bath or shower. Or use a warm, moist towel or heating pad set on low to relax tight muscles in your child's shoulders and neck.
  • Gently massage your child's neck and shoulders.
  • Do not ignore new symptoms that occur with a headache, such as a fever, weakness or numbness, vision changes, or confusion. These may be signs of a more serious problem.

Tension headache in children: When to call

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child has headaches after a recent fall or blow to the head.
  • Your child has a fever with a stiff neck or a severe headache.
  • Your child has new nausea and vomiting, or you cannot keep down food or liquids.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child's headache lasts longer than 1 or 2 days.
  • Your child's headaches become more painful or frequent.
  • Your child frequently uses pain medicine to treat headaches.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.