While many people misuse the terms headache and migraine by believing that they’re interchangeable, those who have experienced a migraine firsthand know that headaches and migraines couldn’t be more different from each other.
Understanding the differences between the two is crucial to understanding the pain you’re dealing with and the proper treatment to seek. Differentiating a headache from a migraine could also help to prevent experiencing a future headache in the first place.
Understanding Migraine Headaches
What constitutes a migraine? If you’ve ever experienced one, you know that there are few things comparable to the relentless pain they cause. Migraines are a very extreme form of a headache that affect upwards of 36 million people in the U.S. alone, and 14 million of those people suffer daily.
The symptoms of a migraine include:
- Extreme fatigue
- Increased sensitivity to light, sound, and smell
Those who suffer from migraines often lack the simple ability to sit upright, speak, and even open their eyes without experiencing immense and intolerable pain.
To combat these symptoms, it’s best for migraine sufferers to find a cool, dark, and quiet place to rest until the pain subsides. Migraines can be caused for a number of reasons but are often blamed by stress, environment, and even diet.
Understanding Tension-Type Headaches
The term headache is a generic title that covers a variety of headache types including cluster headaches, tension headaches, secondary headaches, and sinus headaches.
Cluster headaches typically occur in the same part of the body at the same time of day and are caused by the dilation of blood vessels rather than environment, stress, or diet. Instead, cluster headaches can be caused by bright lights, physical exertion, and even altitude changes.
Tension headaches are felt behind the eyes, in the face, neck, and at the base of the skull. This is the most common type of headache and can be caused by various factors such as stress, hunger, and eyestrain. Often times, these headaches can easily be treated with NSAID medications (ibuprofen, aspirin, naproxen).
Secondary headaches are somewhat explained in their name. They are headaches that are a result of a primary condition such as high blood pressure or cancer. Though the headache itself is not the primary source of pain, it’s a symptom of an existing or underlying condition that causes it.
Sinus headaches are felt in the sinuses and are caused by irritated or infected sinuses. This can be a direct cause of allergies, colds, or other sicknesses that cause your sinuses to become full or inflamed.
Six Differentiating Factors
- Duration – While headaches are usually resolved within hours, migraines can last for days on end.
- Intensity – Pain that is felt because of a migraine is much more intense than that of a headache. Regular headaches feel much more manageable while migraine pain can be debilitating enough to interfere with going about normal day-to-day life and completing simple tasks.
- Migraine Phases – Migraine suffers are familiar with the phases that can occur with a migraine rather than a headache. Phase 1 may include mood swings, lethargy, and warning signs that a migraine is approaching. Phase 2 can include the vision of auras around figures. This phase may or may not be present, all dependent upon the person. Phase 3 is when the pain begins, and Phase 4 is when relief sets in and the pain begins to subside.
- Symptoms – The symptoms of migraines are typically much more intense and extreme than headaches. These symptoms include photosensitivity, environmental sensitivity, dizziness, nausea, and fatigue.
- Causes – It’s sometimes easier to pinpoint the cause of a headache while migraine causes can be more difficult to understand. Some common causes of migraines are hormonal shifts, allergies, genetics, nerve damage, and environmental causes.
- Treatments – This can be one of the biggest determining factors of a migraine vs. a headache. Headache pain is often times manageable with medication and rest whereas migraine pain is relentless. Most times, over-the-counter medications have little to no effect on migraines and the solution to their pain is more of a long-term, multifaceted approach.
Treating a migraine is often specific to the person who suffers from it which is why it’s important to understand the cause and symptoms. Familiarize yourself with what kind of pain you experience in order to formulate a treatment plan that is effective for you and reducing your pain.