Migraine vs. Chronic Migraine: What Are the Differences?

Migraine vs. Chronic Migraine: What Are the Differences?

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  • Migraine vs. Chronic Migraine

    Migraine vs. Chronic Migraine

    Though they share a common name, migraines and chronic migraines (CM) are two different conditions. Many people with migraines will never develop CM headaches, but having migraines increases your risk for developing the chronic condition later.

    A migraine headache is also called an episodic migraine (EM). An EM occurs occasionally. People who experience EM headaches can go weeks and months between migraine attacks. People with CM, however, experience migraines 15 or more days in a month, according to the Mayo Clinic. Additionally, these migraines must happen over a span of at least three months.

  • Characteristics of Episodic Migraines

    Characteristics of Episodic Migraines

    Unfortunately, no test can diagnose migraines. First, doctors will rule out other possible explanations. These include medicine side effects and brain tumors. Once these have been eliminated, your doctor will examine your headache history and the symptoms you experience during a headache. 

    The characteristics of episodic migraine include:

    • At least 5 migraine attacks in a lifetime
    • Headaches that occur less than 15 days each month
    • Headaches that typically last less than 24 hours
  • Length of Episode

    Length of Episode

    Individuals with CM have more headache days than do people with EM. They also experience longer headaches. With treatment, a CM episode lasts 24.1 hours on average. The average episodic migraine, with treatment, is 12.8 hours.

    Without treatment, the window is much larger: A CM lasts on average 65.1 hours, and an episodic migraine 38.8 hours.

  • How Common Are the Two Conditions?

    How Common Are the Two Conditions?

    Episodic migraines are much more common than chronic migraines. In fact, the American Migraine Prevalence and Prevention study (AMPP) found that EM headaches occur in 17.1 percent of American women and 5.6 percent of American men. CM is prevalent in just 1.3 percent of American women and 0.5 percent of American men.

    Women between the ages of 40 and 49 are most likely to experience CM, according to AMPP.

  • Treatments


    EM can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications. Depending on headache severity and frequency, OTC medicines may be all you need. In some cases, doctors prescribe prescription migraine medicines.

    Treatment for CM is a bit different. OTC medicines may provide relief from CM, but severe CM cases may need a more powerful prescription. Some doctors try to prevent symptoms and prescribe preventive medicines to people with CM. A recent study in Neurology found that one-third of patients with CM use preventive treatments.

  • Will Episodic Migraine Become Chronic?

    Will Episodic Migraine Become Chronic?

    Having infrequent EM does not mean you will eventually develop chronic headaches. In fact, each year only 2.5 percent of people with EM are diagnosed with the more severe disorder. About 12 percent of Americans have migraine headaches, but only 7.7 percent of those people have the more severe disorder, according to AMPP.

    Additionally, people who are diagnosed with CM may eventually have their diagnose changed to EM as symptoms improve.

  • The Individual Cost

    The Individual Cost

    Research shows that people who experience CM suffer far greater difficulty coping with their disorder. In fact, a study in the medical journal Current Pain and Headache Reports found that CM causes severe individual and societal burden. Individuals with CM miss more workdays, and the time they’re able to spend with their family is cut short, too. 

    Family time isn’t the only cost: A study in Headache found that people with CM spend $7,750 treating their condition each year, while people with EM spend $1,757.

  • Take Time to Talk to Your Doctor

    Take Time to Talk to Your Doctor

    Migraine headaches affect more than how you feel each day. Over time, migraines can take a toll on your personal relationships, your job, and even your income. If your headaches are becoming more severe or occurring more often, talk with your doctor. Find the best treatment for your type of migraine, and you can regain lost activity time, feel better, and find more satisfaction in your headache-free days.