What are the Differences Between a Headache and a Migraine?

By: Dr. Ellen Edgar  -  no responses  -  Conditions, Diagnosis, Education, Neurological Blog


Man with Migraine New York City

When you feel pain and pressure in your head, it is not easy to tell whether you are suffering from a migraine or a normal headache. However, you need to know the difference between typical headaches and migraines. Recognizing the difference can mean better treatments and faster relief. Moreover, it can reduce the frequency of future headaches. How can you tell the difference between a normal headache and a migraine?

What is a headache?

A headache is an unpleasant pain in the head that causes aching and pressure. The pain ranges from mild to moderate. Specific areas where pain is felt include the temple, back of the neck, and forehead. This pain can last anywhere between thirty minutes and a week. Tension headaches are the most common, and they are triggered by anxiety, stress, or muscle strain. A tension headache is not the only type of headache, others include:

Sinus headaches – these are often confused with migraines. They occur during sinus infections along with symptoms like facial pressure, congestion, and fever.

Cluster headaches – these usually occur on one side and are not as painful as migraines. Other symptoms include nasal congestion, runny nose, and watery eyes.

What are migraines?

These intense and severe headaches have other accompanying symptoms: vomiting, nausea, pain in temples, pain behind eyes or ears, light or sound sensitivity, seeing spots, and temporary loss of vision. In comparison with other headaches, migraine pain ranges from moderate to severe. In some cases, the pain is so severe that the patient needs to visit an emergency room. These headaches typically affect one side of the head. Nevertheless, it is possible for the pain to be felt on both sides.

Another difference between typical headaches and migraines can be made due to the pain quality: migraines cause intense, debilitating pain that makes performing daily activities a struggle. Migraines can be divided into two categories: those with an aura and those without. An aura is used to describe the sensations that one experiences before getting a migraine. They occur ten to thirty minutes before the attack and include unusual sense of touch, smell, and taste; seeing unusual lines; numbness and tingling in the face; and having trouble thinking.

In some cases, signs can occur a day or two before the attack – this is called the prodrome phase. The subtler symptoms include:

  • Irritability
  • Unusual food cravings
  • Constipation
  • Neck stiffness
  • Frequent yawning
  • Depression

What triggers migraines?

Although the exact cause is not understood, environmental factors and genetics play a role. Imbalances in brain chemicals are also said to play a role in causing migraines. During migraines attacks, the levels of serotonin – a brain chemical that regulates pain in the nervous system – drop. The most common triggers include:

  • Drinks – wine and other beverages with high caffeine levels
  • Stress
  • Physical factors – intense physical exertion can provoke a migraine
  • Hormonal changes in women – estrogen fluctuations trigger migraines in women
  • Foods – salty foods and skipping meals have been known to trigger migraines
  • Changes in sleep patterns – too much or little sleep triggers migraines in certain individuals

Do you suffer from debilitating migraines that lower your productivity levels? Over the counter medication only covers up the problem for a while, but the root cause of your migraine will not be addressed. Visit Complete Neurological Care for diagnosis and treatment. You no longer have to take several days off work when you have a migraine. Just book an appointment with us for a quick diagnosis.

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