Headache vs Migraine

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. Recognizing 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. They can range from mild to severe pain and 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. Although there are many types of headaches, according to the Mayo Clinic the most common headache type is a tension headache. Please refer to the Complete Headache Type guide for more detailed information.


Over-the-counter Treatments

Fortunately, most tension headaches will go away with over-the-counter treatments. These include: acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen. But be aware that overuse of these medications can cause rebound headaches.


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


What Is a Migraine?

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

  • nausea
  • pain behind one eye or ear
  • pain in the temples
  • seeing spots or flashing lights
  • sensitivity to light and/or sound
  • temporary vision loss
  • vomitingMigraine headaches are typically divided into two categories: migraine with aura and migraine without aura. An “aura” refers to sensations a person experiences before he or she gets a migraine. The sensations typically occur anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes before attack. These can 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.
  • feeling less mentally alert or having trouble thinking
  • seeing flashing lights or unusual lines
  • tingling or numbness in the face or hands
  • 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 more subtle signs can include:

  • constipation
  • depression
  • frequent yawning
  • irritability
  • neck stiffness
  • unusual food cravings


Treating Migraines:



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 known to cause headaches. These could include alcohol or caffeine.
  • Prescribing Preventive Medication that help prevent headaches and migraines from occurring.
  • Taking steps to reduce stress.
  • Identify Triggers


Identify Possible Triggers:

  • Lack of food – missing meals (especially breakfast), snack lunches or sugary snacks instead of a proper meal can all result in an eventual drop in blood sugar which can lead to an attack. This is particularly important for children who use up a lot of energy and are growing quickly.
  • Specific foods – a few people notice that if they eat certain foods, a migraine quickly follows. However, for the majority of people with migraine, food diaries are rarely helpful; missed meals are a much more important trigger.
  • Changes in sleeping pattern – too much and too little sleep.
  • Hormonal changes in women – migraine attacks may be made worse by the oral contraceptive pill although some women do notice an improvement when they are taking it.
  • Head and neck pain – Often referred to as “cervicalgia”. Muscle tension affecting the neck and shoulder muscles may be a trigger. Simple neck exercises and awareness of the way you sit and stand can help considerably, or even regular massage if you wish. In a few cases, migraine can be aggravated by specific dental problems.
  • Environmental changes – bright lights, loud noise, strong smells, traveling, etc., can trigger attacks in some people.
  • Exercise – regular exercise, without overdoing it, can help prevent migraine attacks but exercise done irregularly can trigger an attack.
  • Travel – a long journey or flight can be a trigger, especially if it involves a change in meals, sleep patterns, climate or altitude.
  • Stress – Headaches are more likely to occur under stress


Keep A Headache Diary:

The purpose of keeping a migraine diary is to record information about the attacks of migraine and other headaches.  This information is valuable in assisting your provider with diagnosis, assessing migraine trigger factors and assessing the effectiveness of treatments.  We ask all of our patients to complete diaries and bring them in for their first appointment

Several triggers are necessary which when added together can result in an attack as the ‘threshold’ is crossed. Sometimes, the attack can be prevented by removing as many of these triggers as possible and keeping below the ‘threshold’.  Your diary should contain the following information:

  • The date.
  • The day of the week
  • The time the attack started.
  • What symptoms were present and their timing in relation to the headache.
  • How long the attack lasted.
  • What treatment was taken.
  • What time it was taken.
  • What trigger factors were present or had built up.

Download a free headache diary here: headache-diary-pdf

After you have recorded several attacks in this way, you should have a better idea of your triggers. You can then divide the triggers into two groups – those which you can do something about (missing meals, drinking red wine) and those which are out of your control (menstrual cycle, traveling). Try dealing with the triggers within your control. Cut out any specific triggers that you suspect, one at time. If you try to deal with too many all at once, you can’t be certain which are most relevant to you. If you know that you have a particularly difficult period at work, be extra careful to make sure you don’t miss meals or have too many late nights. Most people find it difficult to ‘relax’, but an active hobby (playing sports, cycling to work, walking the dog) can help to relieve stress.

Hormonal factors are usually additional to nonhormonal factors and rarely act in isolation to trigger attacks. Hormonal changes are difficult to control, but attacks may be helped by eating small, frequent meals, avoiding sugary snacks and alcohol, getting adequate sleep etc. in the week or ten days before your period. The diary card can help point out less obvious trigger factors. If you find that most of your attacks start late morning or late afternoon, it may be lack of food that is the problem and you can try eating a mid-morning or mid- afternoon snack. Attacks on waking may be due to sleeping in, neck problems or again, too long since food (try a late night snack).