Headaches and Back-to-School: Are They Related?

While back-to-school can be a very exciting time for many teens, it also means renewed stresses with physical consequences. According to HealthyChildren, 50 to 75% of all teens report having at least one headache per month, while 1 to 2% suffer from headaches more than 15 days per month, and sometimes daily. The question is: do back-to-school stresses cause an increase in adolescent headaches and, if so, are there strategies to combat these unpleasant, painful aches?


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A 2013 survey conducted by the American Psychology Association (APA) found that many teens experience what they would call unhealthy stress levels, particularly during the school year (5.8 versus 3.9 on a 10-point scale).

The APA’s website states that school is the top source of stress for teens. Getting straight-A’s, attending a new school, having a strict teacher, preparing for tests and exams, being bullied, having a learning disability, being involved in too many extracurriculars, being a star-athlete—back-to-school comes with a myriad of stressors for adolescents, many of which can result in muscle tension in the neck and scalp, triggering tension-type headaches.

This type of headache is the most common type among adolescents and is characterized by mild to moderate constant band-like pain or pressure. Tension-type headaches can last anywhere from 30 minutes to all day.

Lack of Sleep

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In a 2007 study conducted by Columbus Children’s Hospital, researchers examined the sleep patterns of 69 teens, aged 13 to 17, in relation to reported headaches. Teens experiencing headaches in this study also reported several sleep complaints, including not getting enough sleep, feeling sleepy during the day, trouble falling asleep and night wakings. In the end, this study showed support for an association between sleep and headaches in adolescents with primary headaches.

While this is one specific case study, there is plenty of evidence to support a link between insufficient sleep and adolescent headaches. Between mountains of homework, studying for exams and the anxieties that come with heading back to school, it’s no surprise that teenagers aren’t getting the recommended eight to nine hours of sleep per night.

Removing electronics from the bedroom, drinking fewer liquids after dinner and performing a quiet activity outside of the bedroom until feeling drowsy are all methods to induce sleep. Establishing a structured sleep schedule is also helpful in combating a poor night’s sleep.

Managing Back-to-School Headaches

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The National Headache Foundation has a few suggestions for dealing with headaches triggered by going back to school, including talking with your teens about stress management, limiting caffeine intake, avoiding certain foods such as pizza, lunch meats and MSG and maintaining routines (meal, exercise and sleep). Other experts recommend meditation and breathing exercises for coping with stress but, most importantly, parents should maintain open lines of communication with their teens when it comes to back-to-school woes and the actual pains that they cause.

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