Children’s headaches, sleep woes connected

Times Staff Writer

If your child is dogged by headaches, he or she might also have another problem -- frequent sleep disturbances.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic have found that more than two-thirds of children ages 6 to 17 suffering from chronic headaches also have sleep problems, especially getting to sleep.

Headache expert Dr. Kenneth Mack, a Mayo Clinic pediatric neurologist and lead investigator of the report, initiated the study after observing a sleep-headache link in adult patients.

“If you ask adults what are the biggest triggers for their headaches, they will say not getting enough sleep and stress,” he says. “We thought this would apply to children as well.”


The researchers reviewed the charts of 200 children evaluated at Mayo Clinic between 2001 and 2005. They found that kids with chronic daily headaches (15 or more headache days a month for more than three months in a row) had a much greater incidence of sleep disturbance than did kids who had less frequent headaches.

The study, which was presented last week at a sleep disorders conference in Rancho Mirage, didn’t examine whether lack of sleep causes headaches, or vice versa. But Mack has generally found that his headache patients get better when the sleep problems are resolved.

Mack and his coauthors suggest that the possibility of a sleep disturbance needs to be considered in any pediatric patient with headaches.

Both of the symptoms can be tackled. For sleep problems, Mack sometimes suggests medications such as melatonin. He also recommends lifestyle changes -- such as establishing a nightly bedtime routine.


To treat the headaches, Mack recommends that children stay active, eat regular meals and, in some cases, take anti-migraine medications.

About 4% of girls and 2% of boys suffer from chronic headaches, and 10% to 20% of children have episodic headaches, which can lead to chronic headaches.

Dr. Frisca Yan-Go, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, says that although chronic headache sufferers don’t always grow out of their condition, they can learn to manage their headaches.

“Once the patient identifies the factors causing his headache, whether it’s sleep, stress, school, or family problems, he can begin to work on them,” she says.