For a few weeks last summer our 5 year old woke up almost every night or morning with a headache. She would cry with the pain and sometimes vomit. Our ray of sunshine happy girl looked pale and sullen and started to nap again during the day – something she had not done for over 3 years. My husband (who is also medical) and I were worried. It is hard sometimes to separate being a parent and a doctor however we both agreed that if we were seeing her as a patient we would be referring her to have a brain scan to exclude a tumour.
We were seen by a paediatrician the following week who agreed that she needed a scan and organised one to be done urgently. It was a worrying couple of weeks before the scan and we spent the time practising lying still in a tunnel with her, like she would have to for the scan. MRI scans of the brain can take up to 30-40 minutes and children need to keep their heads totally still while the images are being taken. On the day she did so well and they got all the images they needed and a few days later we were told that the scan was normal!
Headaches are fairly common in children and young people and are generally not serious and lifestyle changes such as good diet and water intake, regular exercise, adequate sleep and limitation of screen time can all help headaches. Making sure children talk about worries instead of internalising them can also help as can relaxation techniques such as meditation and mindfulness.
When to see your doctor:
Headaches which are persistent or recurrent
Headaches present on waking or that wake child from sleep
Repeated vomiting without diarrhoea particularly if early morning
Increased clumsiness or balance problems
Blurred or double vision or abnormal eye position (new squint) or abnormal eye movements
Behaviour changes or changes in ability to learn
Fits or seizures
Abnormal head position or wry neck (in babies and young children)
More information can be found on the Head Smart website which campaigns for earlier diagnosis of brain tumours: https://www.headsmart.org.uk/
Thankfully my daughter’s headaches have got better and we have since found out that she was having a lot more dairy (and chocolate!), less water and more screen time during the holidays with our summer nanny! All of these things can trigger migraine and tension type headaches. Interestingly the only headache she has had recently was a more classic migraine headaches with associated dislike of the light that improve with sleep. Our happy girl is back and full of energy again!