Mental health and headaches in children worsened during the pandemic

Mental health and headaches in children worsened during the pandemic
© iStock/Elena Gromova

A new study has found that mental health and headaches in children progressively worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers from the Children’s National Hospital have found that mental health and headaches in children worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that children who suffer from headaches experienced them more frequently and anxiety and mood deteriorated. The study highlights a link between mental health and headaches in children to stress, decreased physical activity, and increased screen time which could explain the changes.

The findings are published in the Journal of Child Neurology.

Elevated stress levels and headaches in children

The study found that elevated stress levels associated with the disruptions to daily life, social distancing, and anxiety about the threat of COVID-19 infection impacted children with headache disorders, worsening symptoms.

“These findings are impactful to me as a physician and a parent. It is important we gain a better understanding about how stress and changes in routine affect children’s wellbeing and mood,” said lead author Marc DiSabella, D.O., Director of the Headache Program at Children’s National Hospital.

“Things like moving to a virtual environment may have resulted in feelings of isolation and anxiety for kids, and increased screen time may have played a role in more frequent headaches.”

Migraines and other types of headaches in children and adults are common. The researchers engaged with 107 patients between summer 2020 and winter 2021 to examine changes in headache characteristics and lifestyle factors since the beginning of the pandemic. They found:

  • Pre-pandemic, 60% of patients reported having headaches less than 15 days of the month. After the start of the pandemic, that number dropped to 50%.
  • Patients reporting constant daily headaches went from 22% pre-pandemic to 36% after the start of the pandemic.
  • 49% of patients reported their headaches had worsened since the onset of the pandemic.
  • 54% of patients reported that their physical activity levels decreased because of the pandemic.
  • When asked about screen use during the pandemic, 61% of patients reported using screens for more than six hours a day.

Is screen time a headache trigger?

The researchers outline that they are unsure whether screen time worsens headaches in children; however, patients and their families noted that screen time triggered headaches. Lack of physical exercise is also often noted as a migraine trigger.

“Having a headache every day, all the time, with no break in sight, is really frustrating to children and their parents,” Dr DiSabella added. “They just want to be a normal child yet have no control over when the pain increases, and they suddenly are unable to do simple activities like reading a book or seeing friends, which adds to the uncertainty of their future.”

Participants reported worsened anxiety, mood, and workload. It is likely to affect headache patients due to the increased levels of anxiety and depression, the researchers noted.

“We already know that patients with headache disorders have disproportionately high rates of mood complaints, including anxious and depressive symptoms,” Dr DiSabella concluded. “The fact that our patients reported this worsened during quarantine is an additional stress on their already complex lives, managing pain, school and extra-curricular activities.”


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