The start of a new school year can be a stressful time for children and teens. Schedules change and students must balance academic, extracurricular, and social responsibilities. For some students, the return to school is also marked with an increase in headaches. A study from Nationwide Children’s Hospital finds that the number of children visiting hospital emergency departments for headaches increases in the fall. These headaches could be caused by a number of issues, including back-to-school stress or insufficient sleep linked to shifting sleep patterns.
The researchers conducted a retrospective analysis of children’s emergency department visits from 2010 to 2014, reviewing 1,300 cases. Grouping the emergency department visits by season revealed that, for children aged 5 to 18, headaches increase during the fall.
Most headaches are either tension headaches or migraines. Tension headaches are painful—they bring the sensation of a tightening around the head—but not debilitating. Migraines are not as common in children. Migraines are characterized by intense pain and tend to be accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light.
As a group, boys aged five to nine years had a lot of headaches, but by adolescence, their headaches stop. Girls, in contrast, often start experiencing migraines around puberty. Girls’ migraines can persist into adulthood.
Many factors can cause headaches, including insufficient sleep, stress, skipping meals, and a lack of exercise. Parents can help their children avoid headaches by managing these issues. If headaches persist despite addressing these lifestyle factors, experts recommend that parents should take their children to the doctor.
“A sudden, severe headache or a change in the headache sensation from previous, what we call ‘first or worst’ headaches should be evaluated. Another good rule of thumb is that if the headaches are interfering with 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,” says Dr. Jacobs, a clinical associate professor for pediatrics at the Ohio State University.