Parents try alternative medicine to ease their child’s headache pain

More than 1 in 10 young people in the United States experiences recurrent headaches, and parents are eager to find ways to ease their pain and help their children get back to normal life and school.

To that end, nearly 1 in 3 youth aged 10 to 17 who regularly experience headaches are turning to some type of complementary or alternative medicine (CAM), in addition to conventional medical care.

CAM includes things like herbal therapies, acupuncture and mind-body approaches such as meditation or deep breathing. Across the country, youth with recurrent headaches are more than twice as likely to use CAM compared with youth who do not experience recurring headaches.

With that in mind, it is important for parents and children’s health care providers to both discuss the presence of headaches as well as the use of CAM to ensure CAM use is considered when making other medical recommendations and to track CAM’s impact and effectiveness. This is especially important because nearly 9 out of 10 youth with headaches also experience other chronic conditions, and those who use CAM are also among the highest users of conventional medical care.

In fact, a study we recently published in the journal Pediatrics showed that among youth experiencing recurrent headaches, those who used CAM also:

  • Had higher total expenditures for conventional care.
  • Were twice as likely to have seen a specialist.
  • Were more likely to take prescription medications.
  • Had six or more conventional care visits in the past year.

With improved communication between health care providers, parents and youth, everyone can learn more about the potential benefits from using the many self-care approaches included among CAM, as well as the possibility of reducing often costly medical interventions.

In addition, these discussions may also reveal the importance of medications and other treatments to help youth with headaches who often experience headaches on a weekly basis and who miss a large number of school days and repeatedly use the emergency room.

Care coordination and integration of care should also include complementary and alternative therapies. Coordination begins with communication between parents, youth and providers about the use of CAM.

Christina Bethell, Ph.D., M.B.A., M.P.H.
Professor, Department of Pediatrics
Director, Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital