Medical

What's the Difference Between a Headache and a Migraine?

Migraine symptoms are often mistaken for headache symptoms, but they're not the same. Here's how to tell if you have a headache or a migraine and how to find relief.

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The blinding flash of pain, the excruciating pressure between the eyes, and the nausea racking your body until all you can think, feel, see or hear is the migraine currently wreaking havoc on your body. If you have ever had a migraine, you know. 

But what if you don't? The Migraine Research Foundation reports that 39 million adults and children in the US alone suffer from migraines, but many do not even know it. Not all migraines include all of the symptoms listed above, and some severe headaches can feel awfully close to the same level of pain. Today, migraines are the third most prevalent disease globally, yet countless cases remain undiagnosed -- around 75% of people with chronic migraine are not diagnosed, according to a 2019 study.

Knowing the difference between a headache and a migraine is crucial so you can be sure to receive the right treatment. Here's what to know about headache and migraine symptoms and causes, how to tell the difference, and how to get relief.

What is a headache?

A headache is a common form of pain that affects the head, usually in a throbbing manner. There are three different types of headaches: tension, sinus and cluster. The symptoms and causes are very different among the three.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the most common form of headaches, as they can be chronic. They often affect your whole head, typically beginning in the back and moving their way forward as they progress. 

Common causes of tension headaches include stress, hunger and eyestrain. 

Sinus headaches

Sinus headaches most often come from sickness, resulting from swelling in your nasal passages. The pain is often worst in the morning after you first wake up. 

If you find yourself feeling congested, a sinus headache could likely follow, bringing pain to areas like your nose, eyes and even cheeks. 

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches can be the most severe type of headache (though also the least common), the result of overly bright lights, extreme heights or excessive exertion. These regular clusters of headaches can occur a few times a day or occasionally throughout the month. The release of serotonin and histamines in your body can cause your brain's blood vessels to dilate, making these headaches very painful.

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What is a migraine? How is it different?

A migraine is also a type of headache, but it's also much more than that. Migraine is actually a neurological disorder, with severe headaches being only one symptom. 

Other migraine symptoms include:

  • Dizziness
  • Extra sensitivity to light, sound and/or smells
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Migraine headaches involve extreme pain with a throbbing or pulsing sensation. The pain usually occurs on just one side of the head, lasting from a few hours to several days a time. In fact, it is not uncommon for migraines to sideline your everyday activities, such as work, school or anything else that involves leaving a dark room. Migraine is considered "chronic" when headaches occur for 15 or more days per month.

A migraine occurs in four stages, although not all migraine sufferers experience each one. 

The four stages of a migraine

Each stage is marked by different symptoms. 

Stage of Migraine

Onset

Symptoms

Prodrome

1-2 days or even hours before 

Constipation, depression, fluid retention, food cravings, increased urination, mood changes, repeated yawning, stiffness of the neck

Aura Phase

Before or during

Blurred vision, blind spots, bright spots or flashes of light, difficulty speaking, numbness in arms, pin-and needle-like sensations in arms or legs, seeing shapes, vision loss, weakness and/or numbness (on face or on one side of the body)

Attack Phase

During

Nausea, pain on one or both sides of the head, sensitivity to light, sound, smell, and/or touch, throbbing or pulsing pain, vomiting

Postdromal Phase

Up to a day afterward

Confusion, elation in some cases, feeling drained or washed out, relief

Migraine causes

Scientists are still researching migraines and their causes, but studies have shown that genetics play a major role. The Mayo Clinic reports that researchers suspect that imbalances of neurotransmitters like serotonin, as well as changes in the brainstem and nervous system, may all play a role in causing migraines.

Age and gender are also factors. People between the ages of 20 and 50 years are most commonly affected by migraines, with women roughly three times as likely to experience one than their male counterparts.

Each person has different triggers that can bring on a migraine, with all its accompanying symptoms. One of the most common migraine triggers is the same as a common headache trigger: stress. 

Other typical triggers include:

  • Environmental changes: Migraines can be triggered by weather and barometric changes.
  • Foods: Salty foods and processed foods can trigger migraines, as well as certain additives like aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Skipping meals and eating aged cheeses have also been shown to act as triggers.
  • Hormonal shifts: Women having a menstrual period, pregnancy or menopause are all prone to headaches and migraines. 
  • Physical factors: Extreme physical exertion or even sexual activity can trigger migraines.
  • Sensory stimuli: This can include loud sounds, bright or flashing lights or even strong smells. 
  • Sleep: Lack of sleep or changes to your sleep schedule can create migraines.
  • Stimulants: Too much caffeine can easily make room for migraines. Alcohol and coffee are both substances that have been tied to migraines.

Some medications are known to cause migraines, such as oral contraceptives and vasodilators like nitroglycerin. If you suffer from regular migraines, ask your doctor about your medication and what options you have for a more migraine-friendly alternative.

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How to treat a headache or migraine at home

Professional medical help is recommended for severe or recurring headaches and migraines. If you suspect that the "worst headache of your life" may actually be a migraine, it's best to consult with a doctor on how to move forward. 

Still, know that there are some doctor-recommended medications and remedies that you can use at home to find relief from the pain

  • Over-the-counter medications: A pain medication from your local pharmacy can help temporarily stop the pain of a migraine or headache, including acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin. Excedrin Migraine is also highly recommended, although these medications should not be taken regularly or you can risk overuse (which can trigger more headaches). 
  • Drug-free pain relief: Heating or cooling packs can both provide an immediate sense of relief from the pain of headaches or migraines. Heat relaxes your muscles, while cold packs have a numbing effect. Also, it helps to minimize triggers: a dark, quiet and calm setting is best.
  • Prescription medications: Your doctor can diagnose you with migraines and help prescribe a prescription medication if necessary, including antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, blood pressure medicines or beta-blockers. Even Botulinum toxin A (Botox) injections have been shown to help. 

Making some lifestyle changes can aid in the prevention of migraines or headaches. Regular exercise and a healthy diet paired with good sleep habits can go a long way. Yoga and meditation can also help, as well as avoiding burnout and making time for your mental health.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.