headaches in adolescents

headaches in adolescents

In a representative study in Western Pomerania, every second girl and a quarter of boys between the ages of 12 and 15 stated that they suffered from repeated headaches. The quality of life of the affected teenagers is impaired. The experts are concerned that only one in four young people with recurring headaches consult a doctor, but 60 per cent treat their pain with medication themselves or receive medication from their parents. These are significant results of the first major epidemiological headache study by the German Migraine and Headache Society (DMKG).

Girls are more likely to get headaches.

If teenagers regularly complain about headaches, the alarm bells should be ringing for the parents. Girls are mostly affected. Almost every second girl between the ages of 12 and 15 suffers from recurring headaches. Girls are twice as likely to be plagued by headaches as boys.

“We can’t say exactly why that is at the moment,” says Konstanze Fendrich from the University of Greifswald. “Perhaps girls are more aware of pain, or they suffer more from headache-triggering factors such as stress. The hormonal changes associated with the onset of puberty  could also play a role.”


Survey of young people at 20 schools

The researchers at the University of Greifswald asked 3,324 pupils in the seventh to ninth grades at 20 schools in Western Pomerania from 2003 to 2004 about headaches and the associated limitations. The result: around 70 per cent of the young people remembered having had a headache in the last three months. Fifty per cent of the girls and 25 per cent of the boys stated that they had suffered from repeated headaches during this period.

Since the experts assume that the situation of schoolchildren in Western Pomerania does not differ significantly from that in other federal states, this means that for the Federal Republic of Germany, 1.75 million young people experience headaches, and 950,000 of them experience the pain again and again.

Migraine and tension headaches in adolescents

While the proportion of girls with recurring headaches varies in the individual grades – 43 per cent of 12-year-olds and 54 per cent of 15-year-olds are affected – there are no such differences among boys. When researchers apply the strict criteria of the International Headache Society (IHS) International Headache Classification, sufferers suffer

Suppose the criteria are made less strict, for example, about the number and duration of attacks. In that case, the picture changes: 12.6 per cent of young people then probably suffer from migraines and 15.7 per cent from tension headaches.


The quality of life is impaired.

Headaches cause problems for young people in all areas, especially if they suffer from repeated headaches. The body, mind and self-esteem are significantly impaired in those young people who suffer from headaches. The pain also causes problems in the family and at school.

Take pain seriously

“What gives us particular concern,” says Fendrich, “is the uncontrolled use of medication.” Only about one in four young people consult a doctor because of recurring headaches, and only 3 percent see a neurologist or headache expert.

However, over half of boys and more than 60 percent of girls take medication. When asked what medications they were taking, the young people mentioned the over-the-counter substances  paracetamolacetylsalicylic acid  and  ibuprofen . But the prescription  metamizole  is also used.

Fendrich: “However, it would be important to develop strategies in good time to prevent the pain from becoming chronic.” Surveys of pain patients show that 60 to 70 percent of chronic headache patients suffered from headaches as children or teenagers but did not take them seriously.

Living conditions as a trigger for headaches

In order to be able to develop strategies against headaches in a timely manner, the researchers asked the young people about other life circumstances that could be related to the development of headaches.

In conclusion, Headaches are most significantly increased in young people suffering from repeated back pain. Tension and neck or shoulder pain also played a role in other studies. Headaches in children and adolescents are also often accompanied by abdominal pain.

However, the school qualification you aim for also plays a role: secondary school students have headaches slightly more often than secondary school students, and high school students are at the highest risk of headaches.


Lifestyle goes to your head.

But media consumption also plays a role. Music, computer games, alcohol – the favourites of the young lifestyle turned out to be risk factors:

  • more than an hour of music consumption per day
  • more than an hour of Gameboy and computer games per day
  • more than two glasses of problematic alcohol consumption per week

“We can now specify these risks precisely for the first time; young people who were involved in these activities suffered from headaches significantly more often,” explains Fendrich. However, time spent in front of the television and computer, as well as sporting activities in leisure time, do not have any influence on the risk of headaches.

Adolescents should keep a headache diary.

It is advisable to keep a relevant diary to understand what mechanisms trigger headaches in teenagers. Even if many young people find this measure annoying, it can help them to identify triggers such as alcohol consumption or sleep deprivation as the cause of their symptoms. This often reduces the frequency of complaints.

Relaxation training can also help to avoid unnecessary medication. However, if migraines occur at least once a week in the affected adolescents, prophylactic medication with the migraine medication flunarizine or the beta-blockers metoprolol and propranolol is advisable so that the headaches do not become chronic.

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