March 4, 2024

Vaping and other lifestyle factors linked to frequent headaches in youth

UCalgary research looks at impact of several factors on frequent recurring headaches in kids and teens
A collage of two women

Christelle Nilles, left, and Serena Orr.

A University of Calgary-led study of associations between lifestyle and headaches in children and adolescents finds vaping and smoking cigarettes or cannabis is linked with frequent headaches, or headaches occurring more than once a week.

Other lifestyle factors linked with frequent headaches are drinking alcohol or binge drinking, not having regularly timed meals, staying up late, more than 14 hours of screen time per week, and being exposed to household smoking.

Lifestyle factors have a complex interconnection — after looking at the impact of all factors together, accounting for age, sex, household income, anxiety, depression and physical activity, researchers looked at which factors remained linked with headaches. 

When these factors were considered, researchers found a strong link between frequent headaches, vaping, and not having regularly timed meals. For example, teens who were vaping daily had twice the rate of frequent headaches compared to their peers. With frequent headaches, a child may also be more likely to develop chronic migraine.

“These results are important because there is surprisingly little research looking at lifestyle and headaches in kids and teens,” says study senior author Dr. Serena Orr, MD, paediatric neurologist and assistant professor in the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). 

“As a headache neurologist, I think that it’s critical to understand the role that lifestyle factors play, because prescribing medication alone is not the ideal way of treating headaches at any age.”

“We looked at a sample that is representative of over five million Canadian youth and were able to show that substance use — particularly vaping — was associated with high-frequency headaches in teens. In youth aged five and over, meal irregularity, staying up late, screen time, and passive exposure to household smoking were linked to high-frequency headaches.”

Dr. Christelle Nilles, MD, is first author of the study and was a clinical research fellow at The Mathison Centre of Mental Health Research & Education at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute. Nilles, who now works at the Hôpital Fondation Rothschild in Paris, France, says, “We also found incremental increases in suicidality as headache frequency increased. This result suggests how severely disabling frequent headaches can be.

“We think this work has important implications for understanding factors associated with frequent headaches in adolescents and should lead clinicians to screen for suicidality in children and adolescents suffering from headaches,” adds Nilles.

The study was published Feb. 29 in the medical journal Neurology.

Researchers used data available through the Prairie Regional Data Centre, part of a national data centre network funded in part by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. 

Frequent recurrent headaches are estimated to occur in 6.5 per cent to 30.5 per cent of those younger than 18 years and can significantly affect quality of life. They are most likely to occur at the older age range and in females. 

Serena Orr is a paediatric neurologist and assistant professor in the departments of Paediatrics, Clinical Neurosciences, and Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). She is a member of the CSM’s Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Hotchkiss Brain Institute, and the Mathison Centre of Mental Health Research & Education within HBI.

Child Health and Wellness
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and well-being of children, youth and families. Led by the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.

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