The diagnostic values of red flags in pediatric patients with headache

  • Eu Gene Park
    Department of Pediatrics, Incheon St. Mary’s Hospital, College of Medicine, The Catholic University of Korea, 56, Dongsu-ro, Bupyeong-gu, Incheon 21431, Republic of Korea
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  • Il Han Yoo
    Corresponding author.
    Department of Pediatrics, St. Vincent’s Hospital, College of Medicine, The Catholic University of Korea, 93, Joongbudae-ro, Paldal-gu, Suwon-si, Gyeonggi-do 16247, Republic of Korea
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      Headache is a common complaint in childhood and adolescence. Differentiating benign primary headaches from ominous secondary headaches is often difficult. Clinicians usually seek red flags to determine the need for neuroimaging. We aimed to evaluate the diagnostic values of red flags in pediatric headaches.


      We retrospectively reviewed the medical records of 1510 pediatric patients (1470 with primary headache, 40 with secondary headache) presenting with headache and underwent neuroimaging from two centers between March 2010 and December 2019.


      The secondary-headache group exhibited significantly higher frequencies of abnormal neurologic signs/symptoms (40.0% vs 6.8%, p < 0.001), Valsalva maneuver/exercise-induced headache (15.0% vs 4.9%, p = 0.004), headache with vomiting (35.0% vs 17.9%, p = 0.006), and onset under age 6 (25.0% vs 10.3%, p = 0.003) than the primary-headache group, with the following positive likelihood ratio (PLR): 5.88, 3.06, 1.96, and 2.42, respectively. The sensitivity values were as follows: abnormal neurologic signs/symptoms (16/40, 40.0%), headache with vomiting (14/40, 35.0%), onset under age 6 (10/40, 25.0%), and Valsalva maneuver/exercise-induced headache (6/40, 15.0%). The overall sensitivity for ominous secondary headaches requiring surgical treatment was 86.2% (25/29).


      Certain red flags, including abnormal neurologic signs/symptoms, Valsalva maneuver/exercise-induced headache, headache with vomiting, and onset under age 6, were more prevalent in the secondary-headache group; nonetheless, their sensitivity values and PLR were relatively low. Notwithstanding, considering these red flags’ high overall sensitivity for ominous secondary headaches, neuroimaging in patients presenting these red flags should rely on careful follow-up of symptom progression.


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