"Mom, my head hurts"

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Kids get headaches, too. Here's how to help

Cuts and bruises? Par for the (kiddie) course. Tummyaches? Common as can be--especially if school feels a little scary. But if your child complains of a headache so severe that he can't go to a friend's birthday party, chances are you'll have at least a fleeting concern about a brain tumor or another terrifying possibility.

Rest assured. Only about 5% of headaches are a warning of a life threatening growth, a brain injury, or meningitis. Experts, such as Paul Graham Fisher, MD, an associate professor of neurology and pediatrics at Stanford University Medical Center, say the real problem when it comes to kids' headaches is that many parents aren't even aware that children get them. And if they do, parents tend to think the worst. This misconception gets in the way of soothing headaches adequately or preventing them in the first place.

The fact is, 40% of 7-year-olds have an occasional headache, and by their teenage years, 75% of kids will have headaches, some as often as once a week, says Fisher. Children can get tension or migraine headaches-though migraines in children can come and go quickly, making them easy to miss, says Paul Winner, DO, director of the Palm Beach Headache Center in West Palm Beach, FL.

Fortunately, if your child has problem headaches--occurring more than once a week, say, or causing her to miss more than a day of school at a time-you can help. Just follow these steps.

• Write it down Keeping a headache diary will help your pediatrician pinpoint the cause of your child's symptoms. Note when each headache occurs and how long it lasts. Does it wake your child at night or happen only during school hours? Does eating a particular food seem to bring it on? What about hunger? When does the headache begin? Before homework? When he's playing outdoors? Does light or sound make the pain worse? Does he get sick to his stomach, too?

• Establish a routine Once you identify your child's headache triggers, such as missing breakfast, being exposed to bright lights, or consuming a lot of caffeine in chocolate or sodas, adjust accordingly: Make sure she gets adequate sleep, eats regularly, exercises, and stays hydrated.

• Look beyond the physical Stress is a frequent cause of headaches. So find out whether your child is experiencing difficulty at school, feeling overwhelmed with homework, or having trouble with friends. If so, talk to his or her teacher. If your son or daughter seems anxious or depressed, consult with your pediatrician or a family counselor. Also, help your child learn to relax: Swedish researchers studying 288 headache sufferers ages 10 to 18 found that two thirds of those who learned relaxation exercises cut their number of headaches in half. Children as young as 9 have been taught relaxation techniques, says Winner. You can find relaxation CDs at the National Headache Foundation's online store (www.headaches.org).

• Ask about medications Ibuprofen or acetaminophen can soothe an acute attack. To interrupt a migraine as soon as it starts, doctors sometimes prescribe triptans to teens--even though these drugs are currently only FDA approved for relieving migraines in adults.

For most kids with chronic headaches, a combination of medication and lifestyle changes works best. Many hospitals now have pediatric headache clinics where children can learn biofeedback and other ways to manage the pain--and where families can learn how to cope with headaches so they don't disrupt a child's daily activities.

PHOTO (COLOR): Drink up to prevent headaches

PHOTO (COLOR)

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By Marisa Cohen

Marisa Cohen is a New York freelancer who writes frequently about parenting and health.

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