A User's Guide to Headaches

They’re a pain in the, well, head. But asking yourself a few simple questions can help.

20% of teens experience migraine headaches. If one of your parents gets migraines, there’s a 50 percent chance you will too.

Pop quiz: What do you think is the number one reason students visit the nurse’s office?

If you guessed headaches, you’re right. In fact, more than 60 percent of kids and adolescents experience headaches and migraines.

Headaches can be really uncomfortable. They can also be confusing. They may come out of seemingly nowhere, striking in the middle of your soccer practice or algebra test. Some don’t last long, while others can stick around all day. Even the type of pain you feel can change from headache to headache. 

“Teens may not realize that they’re dealing with a headache, since it doesn’t always feel like a sharp pain in your head,” says pediatrician Dr. Mahvash Majeed. “You may have slight discomfort. You might also feel off, moody, tired, or nauseous.”

The good news is that there are ways to make your next headache easier to deal with—or, better yet, to prevent it altogether. It involves a little detective work, so ask yourself these three questions the next time your head starts hurting.

1. “What was I doing before this headache started?”

Think of headaches as an internal warning signal. “The body requires certain nutrients, hydration, and rest to stay balanced,” says Dr. Majeed. “Things like stress, a lack of sleep, not drinking enough water, or skipping lunch can throw off that balance. When that happens, you may get a headache. That pain is your body’s way of saying something’s not right and it needs to be fixed.”

When you feel a headache coming on, think about what you did—or didn’t do—that could have caused it. Maybe you slept in and, in your rush to get to school, skipped breakfast. Or maybe you haven’t had anything to drink in several hours. If possible, take steps to fix the problem. That might mean having a snack or drinking a big glass of water. If you’ve correctly identified the trigger for your headache, you should start feeling better soon. 

Going forward, try to avoid the things that you know give you headaches. For example, if an empty stomach makes your temples pound, be sure that you eat breakfast before school each morning.

2. “Where am I feeling the headache?”

The most common type of headaches that teens get are called tension headaches. They can feel like a too-tight band is squeezing your head. Drinking water and trying relaxation techniques can often help. 

If the pain feels like intense throbbing on one or both sides of the head, it could be a migraine headache. Migraines may also cause sensitivity to sound or light as well as nausea. Some people experience changes in their vision before their head starts to hurt. Severe migraines can make it hard to even get out of bed. In fact, kids who have migraine headaches miss school twice as often as other kids. 

If you’re dealing with a migraine, you’ll probably want to lie down in a dark room until it passes. When you feel better, ask an adult to book a doctor’s appointment. Your pediatrician can recommend medications. They can also suggest changes you can make to prevent getting migraines in the future.

3. “Should I call a doctor?”

The occasional headache is totally normal. But you should see a doctor if you’re experiencing headaches on a regular basis or if your headaches are so severe that they get in the way of school and your social life. Be sure to see a doctor for headaches that occur after a head injury.

Because the headache is not happening on the outside of your body, it may be hard for your doctor to figure out what’s causing it. A headache journal can help. “Journals are a big part of helping to diagnose and treat headaches,” says Dr. Majeed.

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