An increasing number of children are presenting to emergency rooms and being admitted to hospitals with a complaint of headaches. Medical records, of patients aged 4 to 18 years who visited an emergency room from January 2007 to December 2014, were evaluated. What was discovered is the “number of headache visits increased 130% and the number of admissions increased 440%.” (1)
This finding was presented by Michelle Perry, MD of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2016 National Conference and Exhibition.
Research into Causes of Rise in Pediatric Headaches
Digging into 50 randomly selected charts representing each year from 2007 to 2014, researchers discovered that “20.9% of girls were admitted compared with 11.8% of boys.” (1)
Emergency room’s response to the treatment of pediatric headaches has changed over time. In 2007, 76% received pharmacologic therapy with a jump to 84% in 2014. The most significant pharmocological increase was the use of diphenhydramine, multiple brands, but otherwise known as Benedryl.
CT scan’s have sharply declined from “34% in 2007 to 18% in 2014”. Hospitals across the nation are attempting to reduce radiation exposure to our youngest patients.
After reviewing the records, the researchers could not find anything to explain why so many more children were presenting to emergency departments complaining of headaches. However, the researchers do have some theories. Researchers are leaning towards the suspicion of rising stress levels among pediatric patients. In addition to reported headaches, researchers are finding complaints of abdominal pain, depression and anxiety are on the rise in our youngest population.
Researchers considered the possibility of tobacco use and bullying as potential factors, however, when reviewing the literature, it was not noted that there has been an increase in either. One increase did stand out – the increased use of caffeine. The increased awareness of concussions was also considered.
Kids Today are Stressed!
Kids today don’t have an ample amount of recess that yesteryear’s children had. All too often, recess is taken away from students as a form of punishment for a variety of minor infractions. This is their time to blow off steam! Children are experiencing an all time high level of stress, especially with the pressure of educators being evaluated based on their student’s standardized test scores. Although the researchers did not indicate bullying is on the rise, it is still a huge social factor in the lives of children. Many children desire to fit in, only to be cast out. Pediatric stress and resulting headaches is not only a medical issue, it is an educational issue and it is a societal issue.
We need to actively teach children stress management techniques for use at home, school and during extra-curricular activities. We need to alleviate the educational pressure placed upon children today. As a society, we need to work together to best serve our future – our youngest among us.
Consider Neurodevelopmental Movements
Sonia Story of Move Play Thrive suggests using neurodevelopmental movement to relieve tension headaches. Story shares, “Many young children today are complaining of painful headaches on a regular basis.”
Investigate Un-Integrated Reflexes
“While there are many possible factors contributing to headaches, it is important to check for the presence of un-integrated primitive reflexes — residual movement patterns that can cause sensory-stress, weak muscles and tension in the body if they do not mature properly in infancy.”, Story shares.
Release Long Standing Stress to Diminish Headaches
Story elaborates, “Research and clinical studies show that by using neurodevelopmental movement to integrate and mature these reflexes, we can significantly reduce the incidence of headaches. (2) Through these specific and powerful movements, we develop sensory-calm and natural strength of the muscles. This results in releasing long-standing stress and tension in the body. Both brain and body breathe a sigh of relief — tension headaches diminish and a calm, focus develops to help with successful daily life and learning.”
Incorporate Brain Breaks into Daily Schedule
Gwen Wild, OTR/L of Sensational Brain believes, “The importance of “Brain Breaks” is becoming more and more evident, especially at this point in time where recess and physical education are being offered less frequently. Our children are becoming more sedentary at home with the increased use of electronic devices.”
Reduce Stress through Movement to Reduce Headaches
“Movement changes the neurochemicals in the brain. Movement reduces stress levels and increases feelings of well-being.
Brain Breaks can be as simple as a few minutes of Yoga or even just a chance to stand up and do 10 jumping jacks.
At home, limit the time children are allowed to engage in sedentary activities. This will be most helpful in the regulation of neurochemicals associated with stress levels.”, Wild explains.
Reduce Sensory Input to Calm Headaches
For acute headaches, Wild suggests, “Reduce sensory input, as it is the most effective way to alleviate discomfort. Dim the lights, allow the child to rest comfortably while a parent reads aloud to them or he/she listens to an audiobook or peaceful music.”
Replace Caffeine with Movement to Prevent Headaches
Wild additionally contributes, “Instead of caffeine, have kids use movement for alerting input. In particular, activities that increase the heart rate for a minimum of three minutes at a time can have a lasting alerting effect on the brain. Build these activities into the morning routine by having them frog-hop to the bathroom, bear walk to the kitchen table and taking the “long route” to the bus stop for a little extra walking.”
Reduce Stress with Breath, Movement and Meditation
Allison Morgan, MA, OTR, RYT of Zensational Kids suggests breath, movement and meditation to manage headaches.
Breathe to Calm Headaches
“Long deep breaths help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and in turn , will help the body to relax. Try this simple technique:
Sitting or lying down, begin by balancing the rate of your inhales and exhales.
Inhale to a count of 5, then exhale to a count of 5. Repeat this sequence for 4-5 breaths, then keep the count for the inhales, but slow down the exhale to a count of 6, then 7, then 8.”
Move to Release Tension Headaches
“Poses which open the spine, releasing neck shoulders, thoracic and lumbar spine, improve blood flow and relax the muscles that cause constriction of that flow and tension in the body. Try these simple poses:
Standing forward fold – Keep your feet hip distance apart and bend forward at the hips, allowing your arms and head to hang towards the floor like a rag doll. Take 10 slow deep breaths here.
Child’s pose – From a kneeling position, walk hands away from the body along the floor, bringing your forehead to the floor. Take 10 deep breaths here.”
Meditate to Cool Down and Release Pain
“Sitting or lying down – Imagine as you breathe in through your nose, you are inhaling cool, blue air. Imagine that air moves through your nostrils, into your forehead, over the top of your head, then down the back of your neck and out your nostrils.
If you can pinpoint where the headache pain is coming from, imagine that as the cool air passes that point, it turns to red (gathering up the pain) and flushes it out of your body with the breath.
Blue air goes in, cooling, calming and healing. Red air goes out, releasing the pain.”
While the medical community does their part to determine effective strategies to reduce the number of pediatric patients presenting with headaches, we can do our part.
Parents, we can ensure children have ample movement opportunities and explore the possibility of un-integrated reflexes.
Teachers, we can ensure students obtain an ample amount of brain break activities throughout the day and most importantly, leave recess out of your classroom discipline policy.
Therapists, we can teach clients and their parents daily sensory activities to help rev up a child when he is feeling sluggish as an alternative to a caffeinated beverage. Additionally, therapists can teach sensory strategies to limit input in the case of an acute headache.
Don’t forget to breathe, move and meditate whether at home, in the classroom or at the clinic! These three corners of society can play a pivotal role in the reduction of stress and thereby reducing the growing complaint of headaches.
(1) Harrison, Laird. “More Children With Headaches Visiting EDs.” Medscape. N.p., 3 Nov. 2016. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
(2) Wahlberg, Timothy, PhD, and Dennis Ireland, OD, MEd. “Can Replicating Primary Reflex Movements Improve Reading Ability?” BMS: Bulletin of Sociological Methodology / Bulletin De Méthodologie Sociologique No. 111 (2011): 93-98. Move Play Thrive. Web.