Kids across the country are adjusting to the challenges of being back at school. But for some, those challenges go far beyond early starts, double maths and the grind of homework – this time of year is described by paediatricians as 'headache season' for kids, with many schoolchildren suffering from chronic, disabling headaches and migraines.
Because children complain of headaches more often during term-time than holidays, it's easy for parents to assume they're faking or exaggerating symptoms to get out of schoolwork.
But the real issue, according to doctors, is that changes in children's sleep schedule – including getting up early for school and staying up late to study – and skipping breakfast, not drinking enough water and weather changes can all be migraine-triggers when school starts again.
It's estimated that about 10 per cent of young children and up to 28 per cent of teenagers suffer from migraines – hormonal changes during puberty can be a trigger.
Surprisingly, although headaches and migraines are among the most common childhood health complaints, there's a great deal of confusion about migraines in children. The key is to understand how they manifest differently in kids and adults. For example, while adult migraines often last for four hours or more, children's migraines can range from one to 72 hours.
In adults, migraines typically settle on one side of the head, but in children the pain often runs across the front of the forehead or in both temples – so childhood migraines are often dismissed as sinus headaches.
Even more confusing is the fact that childhood migraines don't always involve headache pain. Instead, kids may have abdominal pain, vomiting or feelings of vertigo.
That said, many of the migraine triggers are the same for young and old. The Migraine Trust (www.migrainetrust.org) lists common triggers as:
•A lack of or too much sleep.
•Skipped meals, getting hungry or not eating enough.
•Bright lights, loud noises, or strong odours.
•Hormone changes, such as puberty or the menstrual cycle.
•Stress and anxiety or relaxation after stress.
•Some weather changes.
•Caffeine (too much or withdrawal)
•Changes of routine and travel
All of these are applicable to either young children or teenagers. So if you think your child may be suffering from migraines, as well as contacting your GP, start keeping a 'headache diary' so you can see which triggers commonly precede their illness.
You can't stop them getting up early for school or having to do homework, but you can help them make lifestyle changes like ensuring they eat breakfast every day, drink plenty of water at school, get regular exercise and enough sleep every night.
According to Lynda Hudson, a clinical hypnotherapist specialising in children's problems, parents should also keep an eye on their child's anxiety levels. 'If your child has just gone back to school or changed school, has a new class or teacher, anxiety might be causing the physical symptoms,' she says. 'And this is not unusual, because it happens in adults – when we're stressed or worried we often get a headache or stomach upset. It's the same for kids.'
Hudson advises first looking for obvious causes of their anxiety, such as friction with friends, bullying or difficulties keeping up with school work. Talking to your child's teacher to resolve these problems may help with their anxiety, which should in turn ease their headaches. Hudson also produces relaxation CDs (available through her website), which children can listen to before going to sleep at night.
Or parents can try a simple relaxation exercise when their son or daughter is in bed. 'Say to your child, "Let your eyelids relax, let that relaxation spread down your face, let your shoulders sink right down into your arms and imagine your body is just like jelly,"' says Hudson. 'When they're more relaxed, you can give them little positive ideas that they are calm and can cope with any challenging situations because they're strong.'
Over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen are usually the first line of defence against childhood migraines. But Hudson says parents can also use simple exercises to relieve or even cure the pain. 'If they have a headache, ask them where it is. If it's around the eyes, ask questions like, "Is it better or worse if you move it higher in your head?"'
Hudson admits that this sounds like an odd question, but she says it gives children power over their pain – and says it is possible to move pain around the body. 'If the pain's better when they move it up, say, "How high can you move it? Can you move it right to the top of your head and let it float away?" I often find this completely cures the headache,' she says.
If you think your child might be suffering from migraines, your first port of call should be your GP. But using one or more of these techniques could help ease their pain – and avoid all those missed school days.