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Family Health

Oh My Aching Head!

June 1-7 marks National Headache Awareness week. No one is immune to the occasional headache, even children. Learn more about headaches, what triggers them, how to manage them and how to prevent their onset.

Take apart the word “headache” and it’s pretty clear what it is: a pain in any area of the head. It can be on one side or travel from one side to the other; be a dull thud or a piercing pain; get stronger over several days or appear suddenly and last just hours. They can be hard to describe, but certainly, as the name says, are always a pain in the head.

There are two classes of headaches, and each type has a specific cause or source.

For Young Children
  • Get kids started right away: As soon as a child’s first tooth appears, at about six months old, wipe the tooth with a clean, damp cloth or soft brush. By age two, teach children to brush on their own and supervise them as they do. Make it a game if you can – and certainly make it an important ritual in daily grooming.
  • Talk to your dentist about sealants as permanent molars come in at around six years old. The CDC recommends sealants to prevent decay.
For Everyone
  • Get the right amount of fluoride – either from your drinking water or applied directly to your teeth. Fluoride strengthens the enamel on the teeth and helps them resist decay. Young children should use very little fluoride; more than a pea-sized amount of fluoridated toothpaste is plenty. Any more could cause white spots to form on the teeth.  
  • Brush and floss TWICE a day. Despite early training, ¾ of today’s teenagers have gums that bleed – a sure sign they’re not brushing and flossing regularly.
  • Check your brush. Get a new toothbrush every three months. Teenagers with braces should talk to their orthodontist about special oral hygiene tools to keep teeth clean as they straighten. Many electric toothbrushes have timers to ensure you’re brushing for the right length of time.
  • Rinse or chew gum after a meal. That’s a sugar-free gum, of course, and an antibacterial rinse. Either with help wash away bacteria and neutralize acids that cause decay.
  • Don’t smoke or use smokeless tobacco. Both stain teeth and increase the risk of gum disease and oral cancer.
  • Eat smart and include whole foods in your diet.
  • Avoid sugary foods. The bacteria that break down simple sugars in the mouth produce enamel-eroding acids that open the door to decay.
  • Visit your dentist every six months for an exam and cleaning.

Primary Headaches

Most common type of headaches are tension headaches, cluster headaches and migraines. These aren’t generally a symptom of an underlying disease, but are often caused by one or more of the following factors which trigger the pain-sensitivity in your head: chemical activity in your brain, stimulation of the nerves or blood vessels outside your skull, or your head and neck muscles.

Some lifestyle factors can trigger primary headaches such as:
  • Alcohol – especially red wine
  • Foods – especially processed meats containing nitrates
  • Changes in sleep patterns or a lack of sleep
  • Stress
  • Poor posture
  • Skipping meals

Secondary Headaches

These pains are often a symptom of a disease and can be caused by a number of conditions including:  
  • Acute sinusitis
  • Concussion
  • Dehydration
  • Middle ear infection
  • Flu
  • Panic attacks
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Blood clots within the brain
  • Stroke
  • Brain aneurysms
  • Meningitis
  • Encephalitis
Interestingly, those ice cream headaches or “brain freezes” that can occur after eating something very cold are secondary headaches – and so is the pain you might get from wearing too tight of a hat. When to Seek Medical Help

When to Seek Medical Help

If you or a family member experiences headaches that occur more frequently than usual, are more severe than usual, get worse or don’t improve after taking over-the-counter medication, keep you from doing normal activities like work or sleep, schedule a visit with your doctor to discuss your alternatives. And go immediately to the emergency room if the headache feels like it’s the worst pain you’ve ever had, or if it’s accompanied by:
  • Fever greater than 102° - 104° F
  • Numbness, weakness or paralysis on one side of the body
  • Confusion or trouble understanding speech, trouble seeing, speaking or walking
  • Stiff neck
  • Fainting
  • Nausea or vomiting (if not due to the flu or excessive alcohol)

Triggers and Tips for Kids

Among American school age kids, 5 – 17 years old, 20% are prone to chronic headaches. And by the time they reach high school, most youngsters have experienced some sort of headaches. These are mainly tension headaches; just 5% of recurring headaches in children are diagnosed as migraines, which come with their own set of triggers.

Triggers for “regular” tension headaches include emotional factors related to school, family and friends. If you or the kids in your family are experiencing frequent headaches, look to see if the following factors could be why:
  • Problems and tension at home, including a new sibling
  • Parents who are either too strict/demanding, or too permissive/inattentive
  • Poor self-image
  • Being made fun of by other children
  • Few or no close friends
  • Insufficient/ irregular sleep
  • Going to a new school
  • Learning difficulties
  • Competing in activities or sports
  • Pressure to be a top student
  • Too many extracurricular activities
  • Preparation for tests/exams
  • Death or separation from a loved one (for example, parental deployment or the death of a grandparent)

Try to ease the stress through relaxation techniques (breathing exercises, yoga, exercise), counseling from a professional, and even biofeedback. Then focus on:
Diet: Eat regular meals
Sleep: Maintain a regular sleeping schedule, even during weekends, holidays, and vacations
Stress: Undertake stress reduction techniques daily
Diary: Write down when attacks occur and what may have triggered them.

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