Differentiating a migraine headache from a traditional headache, and vice versa, is important. It can mean faster relief through more targeted treatments based on the type of headache. 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?
Headaches are unpleasant pains in your head that can cause pressure and aching. They usually occur on both sides of your head, and the pain can range from mild to severe. Some specific areas where headaches can occur include the:
- back of the neck
A typical headache usually lasts between 30 minutes and a few hours. Some migraine episodes can last for days or even longer.
Tension headaches aren’t the only type of headache.
Other headache types include:
Cluster headaches — a subtype of a migraine — 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. They are most commonly experienced behind or above the eye or at the temple.
Cluster headaches affect up to
By race and ethnicity, most of the large-scale epidemiological studies have been performed in white people, thus less is known across other ethnicities.
Often confused with migraine, sinus headaches co-occur with sinus infection symptoms like fever, stuffy nose, cough, congestion, and facial pressure. A 2018 survey found that sinus infections affect about 11.6% of adults.
By race and ethnicity, here’s a breakdown of adults who have been diagnosed with sinus infections:
- white people: 12.2 percent
- Black people: 11 percent
- American Indian or Alaska Native people: 10.4 percent
- Hispanic or Latino people: 8 percent
- Asian people: 6.5 percent
Brain structure headaches
Injuries and medical conditions can also lead to headaches.
A Chiari headache is caused by a congenital Chiari malformation. This extremely rare condition causes the skull to push against parts of the brain, often causing pain in the back of the head.
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.
It is a
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.
Migraine attacks are intense or severe and often have other symptoms in addition to head pain. Symptoms associated with a migraine headache include:
- pain behind one eye or ear
- pain in the temples
- seeing spots or flashing lights
- sensitivity to light and/or sound
- neck and shoulder pain
- muscle aches
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 episodes will typically affect only one side of the head. However, it’s 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.
A 2018 study found that
By race and ethnicity,
- Native American people: 17.7 percent
- white people: 15.5 percent
- Hispanic people: 14.5 percent
- Black people: 14.45 percent
- Asian people: 9.2 percent
Migraine episodes 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 headache. The sensations typically occur anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes before a migraine 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 people who have migraine may experience symptoms a day or two before the actual migraine episode occurs. Known as the “prodrome” phase, these subtler signs can include:
People who experience migraine report various factors that are associated with them. These are called migraine triggers and may include:
- emotional anxiety
- lack of sleep
- skipping meals
- hormonal changes
- perimenopausal hormone changes
Hormonal changes can trigger a menstrual migraine headache, which can occur a few days before a period, and during the first 1 to 2 days.
Most tension headaches will go away with over-the-counter treatments. These include:
Because some 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
- neck stretching
- relaxation exercises
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 and substances known to cause headaches, like alcohol and caffeine
- taking prescription medications on a daily schedule, such as antidepressants, blood pressure-lowering medicines, antiepileptic medications, or CGRP antagonists
- taking steps to reduce stress, such as participating in relaxation techniques
People who have migraine less frequently may benefit from taking medications known to reduce migraine quickly. Examples of these medicines include:
- anti-nausea medications, 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 medications more than 10 days a month, this could cause an effect known as rebound headaches. This practice will worsen their headaches instead of helping them feel better.
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 migraine 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 about any other symptoms.