College Students and Headache Prevention

College Kids, Headaches & Stress... or Caffeine ... or Your Chair

College student studying
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Finals can be a headache - literally. Everyone gets headaches from time to time, but college kids seem particularly prone to them, say doctors at the National Headache Foundation, The combination of eyestrain, exhaustion, anxiety, stress, erratic nutrition, studying posture and excess caffeine (and/or alcohol) is practically a recipe for a tension headache. If your child is complaining about headaches - and it's not a chronic issue, such as migraines, or something severe - these tips will help ease the immediate pain and prevent recurrences:

The quick fix, of course, is two ibuprofen, plenty of water, and 20 minutes in a dark room with a cool cloth for the forehead. A warm bath and a shoulder and neck massage may help too. But the longer term fix includes these items:

  • All work and no play (or relaxation) don't just make Jack a dull boy, they make him a stressed-out one too. Even in the midst of final exam crams, encourage your college student to take occasional breaks - especially if he's using a laptop for long stretches. Tell him to go for a walk, play a game or indulge in another great de-stressing activity.​
  • All play and no work is a recipe for disaster too. Good time management - not saving everything till the eleventh hour - prevents last minute panic, stress and anxiety. And if all that playing involves alcohol, that's a recipe for hangover-induced headaches too. Ideally, your child isn't overindulging (and ideally, if he's underage he's not indulging at all, but...). But he should be drinking one or more glasses of water between every alcoholic beverage, in any case.
  • If your college kid is like mine, he's probably using his laptop while curled in a lounge chair, reclining in bed, or in a similarly contorted, neck-tilted, shoulders-hunched position. While that won't hurt his head, exactly, it places strain on his neck, back and shoulders and that in turn may trigger tension headaches.
  • Sleep deprivation or erratic sleep schedules can be a factor in headaches, as can delayed meals and too much caffeine. So that classic mom advice - get plenty of rest, eat right and take good care of your body - needs to be repeated. But what most college kids don't realize is that for a java junkie - or anyone fueling their exam cram with a slew of Red Bulls - too little caffeine causes headaches too. If your child has been pounding back coffee (or caffeinated sodas, black tea or energy drinks), going cold turkey will trigger a bad headache. Ease off instead.​
  • As for the food angle, it's tough to eat well when you're hitting the vending machine at 2 a.m. Parents can help by filling a box with fresh fruit, string cheese and other good-for-you treats and shipping it off as a finals week care package.​
  • If none of the above helps - the headaches become chronic, ibuprofen doesn't work or you suspect migraines - your child should make an appointment to see his doctor or visit the campus health center soon. Some headaches warrant immediate medical attention. These include a headache following a head injury or car accident; a headache accompanied by seizures, dizziness, speech difficulties or other neurological symptoms; headaches that cause vomiting; headaches so severe that they awaken your child from sleep or actually, anything new and blindingly severe; or a headache paired with fever and a stiff neck - especially if your child has not had the meningitis vaccine.