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An overlooked reason your child may keep getting headaches

young boy with a headache

Frequent headaches in children

Headache complaints from children are usually nothing to worry about. Often, rehydration, rest and some medicine takes care of the pain. But, if your child has frequent headaches, schedule a visit with the eye doctor. Nearsightedness can be an overlooked reason for frequent headaches in children.

What causes headaches in children?

Fortunately, headaches in children are not usually the result of a serious medical problem. Common reasons for headaches in children include:

  • Uncorrected refractive error or other vision issues

  • Dehydration

  • Stress

  • Sleep disruption

  • Viral infection

  • Allergies

Make sure that your child is drinking enough water, sleeps regularly and does not have allergies or an infection. Uncorrected myopia (nearsightedness) and other vision issues are an often overlooked cause of frequent headaches in children. Therefore, it is also very important to have your child evaluated for vision issues that may have developed since their last eye exam. 

If your child’s headaches persist, they should be evaluated by a pediatrician. Serious underlying health issues, though rare, can sometimes cause frequent headaches. 

What are common signs of vision-related headaches?

Headaches can be felt as pressure or compression in the head. They can cause dull or sharp and throbbing pain. Headaches caused by vision issues have some distinct features. These types of headaches often:

  • Occur daily

  • Are chronic

  • Get worse as the day goes on

  • Are moderate in severity

Which vision issues can cause headaches?

Vision issues such as refractive error and binocular vision disorders may cause headaches in children. Binocular vision requires that the eyes work together to focus on an object. A refractive error is when the eyes can not focus an image clearly. Types of refractive error include astigmatism, farsightedness and myopia.  

Myopia is the most common refractive error in children. Recent studies have found that myopia occurs in nearly half of all school-aged children

Given the high rates of myopia in this age group, the possibility that a headache may be caused by uncorrected myopia should not be overlooked.

So even if your child does not currently need glasses, it is important to keep up with yearly eye exams to monitor for myopia. This is even more critical if your child is complaining of frequent headaches. 

What is myopia?

Myopia is sometimes referred to as nearsightedness. Myopia in children is usually due to the eyeball being too long. This is called axial myopia. When the eyeball is too long, light rays entering the eye come to a focus in front of the retina, causing blurry vision at distance. 

There is a trend of increased rates of myopia in the U.S. and around the world. According to the American Optometric Association, myopia affects nearly one in three Americans. The rise in myopia has been particularly significant in school-aged children. 

How does uncorrected myopia cause eye strain and headache?

Myopia can make it difficult for a child to see surrounding people and objects. It can also lead to problems judging distance. 

Clear binocular vision (vision from both eyes) provides important cues for the brain about our environment. When we look at an object, the image from each eye is sent to the brain to be processed. When the image in one or both eyes is blurry, difficulty with depth perception and visual processing can occur. 

A lack of clear vision in both eyes can cause eye strain and result in a headache. In some cases, a large difference in refractive error may cause the brain to perceive each eye’s image of the same object as a different size. This can cause eye strain, dizziness and disorientation, as well as being a possible cause of headache. 

How are eye strain and headaches related ?

Eye discomfort, headache and blurred vision can all be symptoms of eye strain caused by uncorrected refractive error. Headaches and eye strain often worsen as the day progresses and as a child grows tired. In addition to blurry vision, symptoms of eye strain may include:

Children are at risk of headaches from eye strain. They often do not realize that their vision is not as clear as it should be and regard eye strain as normal. The resulting headache may be worse in the evening after they have spent the day trying to manage with blurry vision. These headaches gradually become chronic.

How do headaches and uncorrected myopia impact a child?

In addition to experiencing headaches from eye strain, a child may develop headaches from the emotional stress caused by uncorrected myopia. An inability to see their classroom or surroundings clearly negatively impacts many aspects of a child’s life. In fact, some studies have found that adolescents with myopia have increased anxiety. 

Kids need clear distance vision to learn in a classroom, recognize their friends across the cafeteria and perform well in sports and afterschool activities. If children cannot see clearly, they may begin to avoid schoolwork and sports or even time with friends because of the stress of navigating life with blurry vision.

In other words, frequent headaches and poor eyesight from uncorrected myopia can lead to developmental, social and academic challenges in children. In some cases, uncorrected refractive error in young children may even result in long-term vision issues such as amblyopia.

How common is myopia in children?

Myopia typically starts during the school years, commonly developing between ages 8-10. It is usually due to the eyeball growing too long. Most cases of myopia stabilize by age 15 to 20 years. 

A recent study found that about 42% of school children had myopia. Specifically, this study found that about 15% of children between 5- to 7-years had myopia. By age 17- to 19-years, 59% of children had myopia. 

Children may not realize that their blurry vision is not normal. Younger children, especially, may not have any other reference point. Instead of expressing that they cannot see properly, they may experience headaches, stress and decreased academic performance. 

What are some things I can do to help my child?

Uncorrected myopia can make normal tasks difficult for a child. A headache associated with nearsightedness can interfere with a child’s ability to excel in school and sports. Myopia and headaches may even decrease the overall quality of a child’s life.

It is critical not to delay an eye exam to determine whether frequent headaches may be occurring due to vision issues such as myopia. A comprehensive eye exam with an eye doctor is necessary to detect and correct myopia.  

Additionally, the following lifestyle factors may improve overall eye health, and also decrease the frequency of headaches:

  • Spending more time outdoors during the day (research shows that doing this may slow myopia progression)

  • Taking visual breaks during long periods of near work

  • Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables

  • Staying hydrated

  • Getting enough sleep

  • Managing stress

If your child does have myopia, ask your doctor if they would benefit from strategies that may slow down myopia progression. A number of research studies have shown that several options may be effective in slowing down the progression of myopia, including:

So if your child complains of frequent headaches, there are several steps you can take. Adjust their lifestyle to make sure they are getting enough sleep, hydration, nutrition and outdoor exercise. If the headaches persist, have them evaluated by a doctor to rule out anything serious.

And be sure to schedule an eye exam to have them evaluated for eye and vision issues such as myopia. Keeping up with annual eye exams is an important part of helping your child maintain clear vision and stay headache-free.

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