Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell Them Apart


When there is pressure or pain in your head, it can be difficult to tell whether you are experiencing a typical headache or a migraine. Recognizing a migraine headache from a traditional headache, and vice versa, is important. It can mean faster relief through better treatments. It can also help prevent future headaches from occurring in the first place. So, how can you tell the difference between a common headache and a migraine?

What Is a Headache?

Headaches are unpleasant pains in your head that can cause pressure and aching. They can range from mild to moderate pain and usually occur on both sides of your head. Some specific areas where headaches can occur include the forehead, temples, and back of the neck. A headache can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common headache type is a tension headache. Triggers for this headache type include stress, muscle strain, or anxiety.

Tension headaches aren’t the only type of headache that occur. Other headache types include:

  • Cluster headaches: These headaches occur on one side of the head, but aren’t as severe as migraines. Other symptoms include runny nose, a watery eye, or nasal congestion.
  • Sinus headaches: Often confused with migraines, sinus headaches co-occur with sinus infection symptoms like fever, stuffy nose, cough, congestion, and facial pressure.

What Is a Migraine?

These headaches are intense or severe and often have accompanying symptoms in addition to head pain. Symptoms associated with a migraine headache include:

  • nausea
  • pain behind one eye or ear
  • pain in the temples
  • seeing spots or flashing lights
  • sensitivity to light and/or sound
  • temporary vision loss
  • vomiting
Did You Know?
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 29.5 million Americans experience migraines.

When compared with tension or other headache types, migraine headache pain can be moderate to severe. Some people may experience headaches so severe they seek care at an emergency room. Migraine headaches will typically affect only one side of the head. However, it is possible to have a migraine headache that affects both sides of the head. Other differences include the pain’s quality: A migraine headache will cause intense pain that may be throbbing and will make performing daily tasks very difficult.

Migraine headaches are typically divided into two categories: migraine with aura and migraine without aura. An “aura” refers to sensations a person experiences before he or she gets a migraine. The sensations typically occur anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes before attack. These can include:

  • feeling less mentally alert or having trouble thinking
  • seeing flashing lights or unusual lines
  • tingling or numbness in the face or hands
  • unusual sense of smell, taste, or touch 

Some migraine sufferers may experience symptoms a day or two before the actual migraine occurs. Known as the “prodrome” phase, these subtler signs can include:

  • constipation
  • depression
  • frequent yawning
  • irritability
  • neck stiffness
  • unusual food cravings
Migraine vs. Headache

Treating Headaches

Over-the-counter Treatments

Fortunately, most tension headaches will go away with over-the-counter treatments. These include:

  • acetaminophen
  • aspirin
  • ibuprofen

Relaxation Techniques

Because most headaches are stress-induced, taking steps to reduce stress can help relieve headache pain and reduce the risk for future headaches. These include:

  • heat therapy, such as applying warm compresses or taking a warm shower
  • massage
  • meditation
  • neck stretching
  • relaxation exercises

Treating Migraines

Prevention Tips

Prevention is often the best treatment for migraine headaches. Examples of preventive methods your doctor may prescribe include:

  • Making changes to your diet, such as eliminating foods known to cause headaches. These could include alcohol or caffeine.
  • Taking prescription medications, such as antidepressants, blood pressure-lowering medicines, or antiepileptic medications.
  • Taking steps to reduce stress.


People who have migraines less frequently may benefit from taking medications known to reduce migraines quickly. Examples of these medicines include:

  • Antinausea medicines, such as promethazine (Phenergan), chlorpromazine (Thorazine), or prochlorperazine (Compazine).
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as acetaminophen, aspirin, naproxen sodium, or ibuprofen.
  • Triptans, such as almotriptan (Axert), rizatriptan (Maxalt), or sumatriptan (Alsuma, Imitrex, and Zecuity).

If a person takes migraine headache medications more than 10 days a month, this could cause an effect known as rebound headaches. This practice will worsen headaches instead of helping them feel better.

Identify and Treat Early

Headaches can range from being a mild inconvenience to severe and debilitating. Identifying and treating headaches as early as possible can help a person engage in preventive treatments to minimize the chance of another headache. 

You Asked, We Answered

  • Could my poor sleeping habits increase the frequency of my migraines?- Anonymous
  • Not only are poor sleeping habits a trigger for migraines, but so are certain foods and drinks, stress, over stimulation, hormones, and certain medications. It is in your best interest to have regular sleeping patterns to decrease the risk of onset.

    - Mark R. LaFlamme, MD

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