Your head is pounding again. Is it a headache, or something more?
While many people hear the term migraine and think of a more severe headache, there is a big difference between a headache and a migraine. However, migraines often come with many more symptoms than just pain in the head, and sometimes they don’t even involve head pain at all. Migraines and also tend to affect people’s lives more severely and require different kinds of treatment.
If you’re not sure whether you’ve been having headaches or migraines, keep reading to learn more about the differences between the two.
What Is the Main Difference Between a Headache and a Migraine?
Technically, a migraine is a subtype of headache. Migraines are typically differentiated from other types of headaches like tension headaches and sinus headaches though.
When people say they have a headache, they are typically referring to one of the most common types of headaches, a tension headache. Tension headaches are most often experienced as dull, constant pain in the forehead area. The pain is often described as pressure, like a band squeezing the forehead.
When comparing the pain in a tension headache vs. a migraine, the pain experienced during a tension headache is mild to moderate. You may experience some tenderness around the forehead and temples as well. Unlike with a migraine, there will most likely not be any additional symptoms.
Tension headaches are typically brought on by stress. They respond well to relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or massage. Over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also provide tension headache relief.
Among the different types of head aches and pains, sinus headaches are the most likely to be confused with migraines. The best way to know that a headache is a sinus headache is if it is accompanied by other symptoms of sinus infection. These symptoms include nasal congestion, facial pressure, and fever.
What Is a Migraine Like?
In comparison with a tension headache, migraine pain tends to be more severe. It is typically a throbbing pain rather than a consistent, dull pain.
Migraine pain is also usually, but not always, one-sided. This means that only the left or right side of your head will hurt, but not both. Most migraine sufferers (sometimes called migraineurs) experience pain more often on one side of their head than the other.
Sometimes migraine pain will shift from one side of the head to the other during a migraine, but it is rare to feel pain on both sides simultaneously.
Another major factor that distinguishes migraines from other types of headaches is the presence of additional symptoms. Some common migraine symptoms in addition to head pain are:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sensitivity to light, sound, smell, and/or touch
- Pain behind one eye, ear, or temple
The severity of migraine pain in addition to these extra symptoms means that migraines greatly interfere with daily activities for most people who get them. Migraines can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 72 hours, and longer in some cases.
Phases of a Migraine
Another big difference between headaches and migraines is that migraines often occur in multiple phases. A migraine may include any or all of the following:
Other types of headaches only consist of one phase: the headache. Let’s take a closer look at each of the possible stages of a migraine.
Prodrome, or the pre-headache phase, begins one to two days before a migraine headache. When migraine sufferers have become familiar with their symptoms, they may recognize symptoms of prodrome and take preventive measures to try to ward off the migraine. Common symptoms experienced during the prodrome phase include:
- Gastrointestinal issues (e.g. constipation or upset stomach)
- Stiffness or pain in the neck
- Food cravings
- Change in energy levels (increase or decrease)
- Mood changes (e.g. depression, euphoria, or irritability)
- Mental fog
- Aphasia (difficulty speaking or finding the right words)
The most common way doctors will differentiate between types of migraines diagnostically is whether they occur with or without aura. About 25% of migraine sufferers experience migraines with aura. An aura is a change to the senses that occurs 15 to 30 minutes before the onset of migraine pain.
Vision changes are the most common, but migraineurs experience a wide variety of different sensory oddities during the aura phase. If you get different subtypes of migraines your aura might be slightly different. Some of the most common symptoms of migraine aura are:
- Seeing flashing lights or strange, often zigzagging lines
- Blind spots in the vision and/or partial loss of sight
- Burning sensation, tingling or numbness in the face, hands, or feet
- Ringing in the ears or hearing loss
- Auditory or olfactory hallucinations (hearing or smelling things that aren’t there)
- Hypersensitivity to light, sound, smell, or touch
- Dizziness or vertigo
If you are experiencing migraines for the first time, you should consult a doctor. This is particularly true, however, if you are experiencing one-sided tingling or numbness, as this is also a symptom of stroke. In migraines, this is referred to as a hemiplegic migraine.
Migraines in which the visual effects are particularly intense, especially if head pain doesn’t follow, are called ocular migraines.
If you are experiencing vertigo and headache together, you are likely experiencing a vestibular migraine.
Migraines in which no head pain occurs but other symptoms do are called “silent migraines.”
Postdrome, sometimes called a migraine hangover, is the one to two day period after a migraine is over when the sufferer is still feeling the aftereffects. Typically, these aftereffects are exhaustion, mental fog, and depression, though some people feel euphoric during postdrome.
If you believe you are suffering from migraines rather than headaches, you should keep a journal of your symptoms and see a doctor to discuss the best treatment plan for you. Treatment involves avoiding your triggers, which can include stress, some food and drink, certain exercises, hormonal changes, changes and barometric pressure, and changes in the sleep cycle.
Treatment may also include preventive (taken daily to prevent migraines) and/or abortive (taken at the onset of a migraine to lessen severity) medications.
Resting in a dark, quiet room with either ice or heat and waiting it out is the best treatment for a migraine that has already begun.
Headaches and Migraines
Now that you know the difference between a headache and a migraine, you have a better idea of which you might have. If you are experiencing severe or debilitating head pain, you should consult a doctor to determine the right course of treatment for you.
If you found this article useful, check out our Health section for more like it!