Headaches vs. Migraines: How to Tell the Difference and Get Relief

For experienced migraineurs, the signs of an attack are as clear as day: the blinding flashes of pain, the unbearable pressure between the eyes and Nausea torments your body make it impossible to ignore.

But not all migraines look or feel the same, and some severe headaches can feel awfully close to the same level of pain. The Migraine Research Foundation reports that 39 million adults and children suffer from migraines in the US alone and migraine is the third most common disease worldwide. Yet countless cases go undiagnosed — around 75% of people with chronic migraines go undiagnosed, according to a 2019 study.

It’s important to know the difference between a common headache and a migraine so you can be sure you’re getting the right treatment. Here’s what you should know about the symptoms and causes of headaches and migraines, how to tell the difference, and how to get relief.

What are headaches?

Headaches are a common form of pain that affects the head, usually throbbing. Excluding migraines, most headaches fall into three different types: tension, sinus, and cluster. The symptoms and causes of the three are very different.

tension headache

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache because they can be chronic. They often affect the entire head, typically starting in the back and moving forward. The pain is typically milder. The pain can often feel like “a tight cap,” “band-like,” “pressure,” or “heavy head.”

Common causes of tension headaches are stress, hunger and eyestrain.

sinus headache

Sinus headaches most often come from illness caused by swelling in your nasal passages. The pain is often worst in the morning after first waking up.

If you feel congested, a sinus headache could likely follow, causing pain in areas like your nose, eyes, and even cheeks. The pain typically affects both sides of your face.

Cluster headache

Cluster headaches can be the most severe type of headache (though the rarest), resulting from exposure to bright lights, extreme altitude, or excessive exertion. The pain is confined to one side of the head, can be sharp and stabbing, and is most commonly located around the eye or temple. These regular headaches can occur a few times a day or occasionally throughout the month. The release of serotonin and histamines in your body can cause your brain’s blood vessels to dilate, making these headaches very painful.


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What is a migraine? Where’s the difference?

A migraine is also a type of headache, but it’s much more than that. Migraines are actually a neurological condition, with severe headaches being just one symptom.

Other migraine symptoms include:

  • dizziness
  • Hypersensitivity to light, sounds and/or smells
  • Extreme tiredness
  • nausea
  • Vomit

Migraine headaches involve extreme pain with a throbbing or throbbing sensation. The pain usually occurs on only one side of the head and lasts from a few hours to several days. In fact, it’s not uncommon for migraines to override your day-to-day activities like work, school, or anything else that requires you to leave a dark room. Migraines are considered “chronic” when headaches occur 15 or more days per month.

A migraine occurs in four stages, although not all migraine sufferers experience each one.

The four stages of a migraine

Each stage is characterized by different symptoms.

stage of migraine




1-2 days or even hours before

Constipation, depression, fluid retention, cravings, increased urination, mood swings, repeated yawning, stiff neck

aura phase

Before or during

Blurred vision, blind spots, bright spots or flashes of light, difficulty speaking, numbness in the arms, tingling in the arms or legs, seeing shapes, loss of vision, weakness and/or numbness (of the face or on one side). from body)

attack phase


Nausea, pain on one or both sides of the head, sensitivity to light, sound, smell, and/or touch, throbbing or throbbing pain, vomiting

postdromal phase

Up to a day after

Confusion, in some cases elation, feeling exhausted or exhausted, relief

causes migraines

Scientists are still researching migraines and their causes, but studies have shown that genetics play a big part. The Mayo Clinic reports that researchers suspect imbalances in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, as well as changes in the brainstem and nervous system, may play a role in causing migraines.

Age and gender are also factors. People between the ages of 20 and 50 are most commonly affected by migraines, with women being about three times more likely to be affected than their male counterparts.

Everyone has different triggers that can trigger a migraine with all its side effects. One of the most common migraine triggers is the same as a common headache trigger: stress.

Other typical triggers are:

  • Environmental Changes: Migraines can be triggered by weather and barometric changes.
  • Food: Salty foods and processed foods can trigger migraines, as can certain additives like aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG). Skipping meals and eating aged cheese have also been shown to be triggers.
  • Hormonal changes: Women who are menstruating, pregnant, or going through menopause are all prone to headaches and migraines.
  • Physical Factors: Extreme physical exertion or even sexual activity can trigger migraines.
  • Sensory stimuli: These can include loud noises, bright or flashing lights, or even strong smells.
  • Sleep: Lack of sleep or changes in your sleep pattern can cause migraines.
  • Stimulants: Too much caffeine can easily give way to migraines. Alcohol and coffee are both substances that have been linked to migraines.

Some medications are known to cause migraines, such as B. oral contraceptives and vasodilators such as nitroglycerin. If you suffer from regular migraines, ask your doctor about your medications and what options you have for a more migraine-friendly alternative.


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How to treat a headache or migraine at home

Professional medical help is recommended for severe or recurring headaches and migraines. If you suspect that a particularly frustrating headache might actually be a migraine, it’s best to consult a doctor to learn what to do next.

Nevertheless, know that there are some medicines recommended by the doctor and remedies you can use at home find relief from pain.

  • Over-the-counter medications: A pain reliever from your local pharmacy may help temporarily stop the pain of a migraine or headache, including acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin. Excedrin Migraine is also highly recommended, although these medications should not be taken on a regular basis or you may risk overuse (which can trigger more headaches).
  • Medication-Free Pain Relief: Both hot and cold packs can provide an immediate feeling of headache or migraine relief. Heat relaxes your muscles, cold packs have an anesthetic effect. Plus, it helps minimize triggers: a dark, quiet, and calm environment is best.
  • Prescription Medications: Your doctor can diagnose you with migraines and prescribe prescription medications if needed. Certain medications may be prescribed to stop migraines early in the course, while other medications may be used as prophylaxis to prevent migraines, including antidepressants, anti-seizure medications, or blood pressure medications such as beta-blockers. Injections with botulinum toxin A (Botox) have also proven to be helpful.

Some lifestyle changes can help prevent migraines or headaches. Regular exercise and a healthy diet coupled with good sleeping habits can go a long way. Yoga and meditation can also help Avoid burnout and make time for your sanity.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions about a medical condition or health goals.

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