Headaches common among teen-agers


August 30, 1994|By Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe | Dr. Modena Wilson and Dr. Alain Joffe,Special to The Sun

Q: I suffer from severe headaches. I went to the eye doctor and he gave me some glasses but I still get the headaches. What could be causing them?

A: Without knowing more about you and the kind of headaches that you're having, it's hard for us to give you a lot of information about what could be causing them. However, we do wish to point out that headaches are extremely common among teen-agers. In one study done in Maryland, approximately 65 percent of teen-agers indicated they had experienced a headache in the past four weeks. Almost 5 percent of young men and 10 percent of young women had four or more headaches during that time.

The most common kind of headache is stress-related. The pain is often experienced in the back of the head or on the sides of the forehead and is constant in nature. Often, there is accompanying pain or tightness in the muscles of the neck and shoulders. Any kind of stress or anxiety can precipitate these headaches: a big game, an exam or a fight with a friend or parent. Once the stress or anxiety goes away, the headache typically recedes. These headaches will respond well to various over-the-counter pain relievers as well as heat, massage or stress reduction.

If one or more people in your family also have severe headaches, you may be suffering from migraines. These headaches usually have a throbbing (pounding) quality to them, and are often, but not always, on one side. Sometimes an individual can predict when they are going to get these headaches because they experience a funny taste in their mouth or see spots before their eyes. Teen-agers with migraines will often have nausea and vomiting with the headache and their eyes will be very sensitive to light. The only thing they want to do is get into a dark room and sleep for a long while. Migraines can be precipitated by stress, exercise, by certain foods (including, unfortunately, chocolate!) and, among women, by menstrual periods. A number of prescription medications are available for treatment, including new, highly effective medication that individuals can learn to inject themselves.

If you are having frequent headaches (more than two or three times per month), we encourage you to see your doctor. Most teen-agers with bad headaches (or your parents) worry that they may have a brain tumor. Although this is unlikely, a careful examination by your physician should help rule this out as a possibility. There are also other treatable causes such as sinus infections that your doctor will look for. You needn't live with this problem because effective help is available.

Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.

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