What’s the Difference Between Migraines and Headaches?

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, PhD, RN, CRNA on July 10, 2017Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN

Overview

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. Differentiating 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. The pain can range from mild to severe, and they 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, and anxiety.

Tension headaches aren’t the only type of headache; other headache types include:

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are severely painful headaches that occur on one side of the head and come in clusters. This means you experience cycles of headache attacks, followed by headache-free periods.

Sinus headaches

Often confused with migraines, sinus headaches co-occur with sinus infection symptoms like fever, stuffy nose, cough, congestion, and facial pressure.

Chiari headaches

A Chiari headache is caused by a birth defect known as a Chiari malformation, which causes the skull to push against parts of the brain, often causing pain in the back of the head.

Thunderclap headaches

A “thunderclap” headache is a very severe headache that develops in 60 seconds or less. It could be a symptom of a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a serious medical condition that requires immediate medical attention. It may also be caused by an aneurysm, stroke, or other injury. Call 911 immediately if you experience a headache of this kind.

Read more here to learn about headache symptoms that may be signs of serious medical problems.

What is a migraine?

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

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 they get a migraine. The sensations typically occur anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes before an attack. These can include:

  • feeling less mentally alert or having trouble thinking
  • seeing flashing lights or unusual lines
  • feeling tingling or numbness in the face or hands
  • having an 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:

Migraine vs. Headache

Migraine triggers

People who experience migraines report various factors that are associated with them. These are called migraine triggers and may include:

Treating headaches

Over-the-counter treatments

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

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:

Medications

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

  • anti-nausea medicines, such as promethazine (Phenergan), chlorpromazine (Thorazine), or prochlorperazine (Compazine)
  • mild to moderate pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as 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 being 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. Distinguishing migraines from other types of headaches can be tricky. Pay particular attention to the time before the headache starts for signs of an aura and tell your doctor.

Migraines and sleep: Q&A

Q:

Could my poor sleeping habits increase the frequency of my migraines?

A:

Yes, poor sleeping habits are a trigger for migraines, along with certain foods and drinks, stress, overstimulation, hormones, and certain medications. It is in your best interest to have regular sleeping patterns to decrease the risk of onset.

Mark R. LaFlamme, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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