Pediatric headache: Are the red flags misleading or prognostic?

Brain Dev. 2021 Mar;43(3):372-379. doi: 10.1016/j.braindev.2020.10.007. Epub 2020 Nov 10.

Abstract

Background: Symptoms and findings called orange or red flags may indicate the etiology of pediatric headaches and may point to a life-threatening situation requiring urgent treatment and thus can alter patient management. These findings can be either misleading or prognostic for clinicians. We aimed to identify the etiology and prognostic value of orange/red flags in pediatric patients.

Methods: This study included 810 children with headaches who underwent neuroimaging due to the existence of orange/red flags. Their hospital records were examined to obtain demographical, clinical, laboratory data, and re-classify the headaches and determine orange/red flags on admission.

Results: Secondary causes were identified in 17.0% (n: 138) of patients, however, those who were diagnosed with a life-threatening headache that required emergency treatment were 5.2% of all patients and 30.4% of the patients diagnosed with a secondary headache. Those with secondary headaches and with life threatening secondary headaches which required urgent treatment were younger (p = 0,018, p = 0,022), had more emergency department visits (p < 0,001), and acute onsets (p < 0,001). Red flags, like systemic symptoms (p < 0,001), sudden onset (p = 0,023, p = 0.039), papilledema (p < 0,001), and progressive headaches (p = 0,048, p = 0.006), were more common with secondary headaches and its subgroup, while headache awakening from sleep (p = 0.009) and family history of primary headache (P > 0,001) were more common in primary headaches. No correlation existed between the number of red flags and etiology. However, older age (p = 0,001) and a shorter duration between symptoms and admission (p = 0,032), and the number of emergency service visits (p = 0,020) increased with increasing red flags.

Conclusions: Physicians always look for flags when they encounter patients with headaches, which is a common symptom, so as not to overlook anything. However, red flags do not always mean that the underlying cause requires emergency treatment and the severity of the cause is not correlated with the number of flags.

Keywords: Pediatric headache; Primary headache; Red flags; Secondary headache.