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Pandemic survey: Forty-six percent of pediatric headache patients got worse



Many pediatric patients with headache experienced increased headache frequency, increased anxiety, and worsening mood through the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, a newly released survey finds. But some actually found the pandemic era to be less stressful since they were tightly wound and could more easily control their home environments, a researcher said.

“We need to be very mindful of the connections between school and home environments – and social situations – and how they impact headache frequency,” said Marc DiSabella, DO, a pediatric neurologist at Children’s National Hospital/George Washington University, Washington. He is coauthor of a poster presented at the 50th annual meeting of the Child Neurology Society.

Dr. DiSabella and colleagues launched the survey to understand what headache patients were experiencing during the pandemic. They expected that “things were going to go really terrible in terms of headaches – or things would go great, and then things would crash when we had to reintegrate into society,” he said in an interview.

The team surveyed 113 pediatric patients who were evaluated at the hospital’s headache clinic between summer 2020 and winter 2021. Most of the patients were female (60%) and were aged 12-17 years (63%). Twenty-one percent were younger than 12 and 16% were older than 17. Chronic migraine (37%) was the most common diagnosis, followed by migraine with aura (22%), migraine without aura (19%), and new daily persistent headache (15%).

Nearly half (46%) of patients said their headaches had worsened during the pandemic. Many also reported more anxiety (55%), worsened mood (48%) and more stress (55%).

Dr. DiSabella said it’s especially notable that nearly two-thirds of those surveyed reported they were exercising less during the pandemic. Research has suggested that exercise and proper diet/sleep are crucial to improving headaches in kids, he said, and the survey findings suggest that exercise may be especially important. “Engaging in physical activity changes their pain threshold,” he said.

The researchers also reported that 60% of those surveyed said they looked at screens more than 6 hours per day. According to Dr. DiSabella, high screen use may not be worrisome from a headache perspective. “We have another study in publication that shows there’s not a clear association between frequency of screen use and headache intensity,” he said.

The survey doesn’t examine what has happened in recent weeks as schools have reopened. Anecdotally, Dr. DiSabella said some patients with migraine are feeling the stress of returning to normal routines. “They tend to be type A perfectionists and do well when they’re in control of their environment,” he said. “Now they’ve lost the control they had at home and are being put back into a stressful environment.”

Pandemic effects mixed

Commenting on the study, child neurologist Andrew D. Hershey, MD, PhD, of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, questioned the finding that many children suffered from more headaches during the pandemic. In his experience, “headaches were overall better when [children] were doing virtual learning,” he said in an interview. “We had fewer admissions, ED visits declined, and patients were maintaining better healthy habits. Some did express anxiety about not seeing friends, but were accommodating by doing this remotely.”

He added: “Since their return, kids are back to the same sleep deprivation issue since schools start too early, and they have more difficulty treating headaches acutely since they have to go to the nurse’s office [to do so]. They self-report a higher degree of stress and anxiety.”

On the other hand, Jack Gladstein, MD, a child neurologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said in an interview that most of his patients suffered more headaches during the pandemic, although a small number with social anxiety thrived because they got to stay at home.

He agreed with Dr. DiSabella about the value of exercise. “At every visit we remind our youngsters with migraine to eat breakfast, exercise, get regular sleep, and drink fluids,” he said.

No study funding was reported. The study authors, Dr. Hershey, and Dr. Gladstein reported no disclosures.

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