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It Hurts! Children’s Headaches, Stomach Aches

Posted on Oct 11, 2012 | 0 comments

“Ouch, my ________ hurts!” You can almost guarantee most parents would fill in the blank with either ‘stomach’ or ‘head’ for their child. Headaches and stomach aches are two of the most common discomforts parents hear from their children – apart from maybe: “I’m bored!” Just like adults occasionally get a headache or stomach ache, babies and children can get them, too. Head and stomach pain can be part of an illness such as a virus, step throat or sinus infection, but this discomfort can also have many other triggers.

Most times, these pains are a fleeting discomfort, but if they do become a regular occurrence, finding out the triggers and getting to the bottom of any other issue that might be causing this complaint can help your child stay pain-free. In this blog post, pediatrician Paul Protter, M.D., answers parents’ questions about the causes for children’s headaches, migraines and stomach aches and how best to soothe and avoid these unwelcome pains.

My teenage daughter often seems to get a headache. What can be causing this?

Anything that is throwing your daughter off kilter could be causing her headaches. Some common causes include:

  • Extreme hunger or thirst
    Lack of sleep
  • Stress
  • Hormonal changes during her cycle
  • Specific foods such as aged cheese, chocolate, seafood or food additives such as monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Seasonal or weather changes
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, movement or smells
  • Schedule changes – even an enjoyable change such as taking a vacation can sometimes cause a headache!

Often it is not one specific thing that triggers a headache but a combination of factors. For example, your daughter might be OK after not getting enough sleep for one night, but after the second night of too little shut-eye, she’ll get a headache. To pinpoint what’s causing your daughter’s headaches and detect any particular patterns, keep a headache diary.

If your daughter’s headache is accompanied by a high fever, stiff neck and she is incoherent or confused, seek immediate medical attention. You should also see the doctor if your child is suffering from a headache due to a head injury.

What’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?

Tension or muscle contraction headaches are your common-or-garden headaches and may feel dull and achy or it may seem like your head is being tightly squeezed. Your neck muscles may also be tense.

Migraine or vascular headaches cause throbbing, pounding pain, are debilitating and can cause vomiting. If your child has a migraine, he or she may also feel light-headed or dizzy and be sensitive to light, smells or sound. Each child (or adult) may experience a migraine very differently and many people can tell beforehand that they are about to get a migraine. If you or someone in your family suffers from migraines, your child may also get them, too.

Some children also suffer from abdominal migraines, where he or she suddenly feels sick to the stomach, vomits and experiences intense stomach pain. This may also be an indication that migraines run in the family and the child may later suffer from migraines.

What’s the best treatment for a headache?

The best thing you can do for a headache is to just go to sleep. To help make your child more comfortable you can also give him or her over-the-counter pain medication such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (for example, Advil or Motrin) or acetaminophen drugs (Tylenol). For additional TLC, lay a cool cloth on his or her forehead and gently massage their temples.

If your child suffers from migraines, your child’s doctor will prescribe migraine medication. Teach your child to take this medication as soon as he or she feels like a migraine is coming on. As with a regular headache, sleep is a great pain reliever.

After meals my daughter often says that her tummy hurts. Why is she getting these pains?

One of the most common causes for chronic recurring abdominal pain is constipation. Eating triggers the reflex to go to the bathroom and can cause painful cramps in the lower part of the stomach if your daughter is constipated. Ask your daughter about her bowel movements. This is not about how often she is having a bowl movement, but about the consistency of the stool. The stool should always pass easily, if it’s difficult, hurts or is uncomfortable, she is probably constipated. Drinking plenty and eating lots of healthy foods including fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help.

Another frequent cause of stomach pain is Gastroesophagael Reflux Disease (GERD). Symptoms include burning, stinging sensations in the middle of the body in the area above the belly button. Your daughter might also complain that something tastes funny. Give her over-the-counter antacid medication, like TUMS. If she then feels better, she probably has GERD. Other helpful remedies include:

  • Eat smaller meals.
  • Stay away from fried, fatty and spicy foods.
  • Avoid constrictive clothing.
  • Use phone books to elevate her sleeping position.

If your daughter has diarrhea, gas or bloating after eating, this may indicate that she is lactose intolerant, and this is something you can speak to her doctor about.

Keeping a stomach ache diary of when and where she gets the pain, what makes it better or worse, and anything else that is going on in her life, can sometimes help pinpoint the reason for her stomach pain.

If your daughter experiences severe pain that starts around the belly button and moves off to the right side of the stomach, vomits, has a fever and her stomach feels rigid and tender, this may indicate that she has appendicitis. In this case, seek immediate medical attention.

My son complains of a stomachache every morning. What could be causing this?

Note if your son’s stomach aches only occur on school days and whether he feels fine at the weekend. In that case, find out if there are any stresses at school such as problems with teachers, peers or school work that’s too challenging and address those issues. Whatever you do, make sure he keeps going to school. For example, even if he doesn’t want to eat breakfast, give him a light snack, such as crackers, to take with him and eat when he gets to school and his stomach has settled down.

Paul Protter, M.D., is a board-certified pediatrician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Sunnyvale Center.

Please note that we are unable to respond to personal medical questions through the comments feature below. For information about personalized health care, or if you need help in choosing a PAMF physician, please visit Becoming a PAMF Patient (http://www.pamf.org/findadoctor) or call 1-888-398-5677. If you are a PAMF patient, you can email your doctor securely via our My Health Online program. Thank you

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