What’s the Difference Between a Migraine and a Headache, and When Do You Need To Be Seen?
Headaches are one of the most common maladies in the United States. From children to adults, most people experience occasional headaches, but when they become frequent, it can signal a headache disorder that can significantly impact a person’s quality of life. Many Americans suffer not just from headaches, but from migraines specifically.
Understanding how those two conditions differ can be a little tricky. What is the difference between a migraine and a headache? A few characteristics set them apart, but first, let’s look at the basics of what causes headaches in the first place.
What Happens When Your Head Hurts?
Contrary to how it feels, your brain isn’t actually “in pain” when you have a headache. The brain itself has no pain receptors. However, it is the part of the body that receives the pain messages from other areas. When nerves, muscles, and blood vessels around the head and neck tighten or swell, that disruption signals the pain you feel as a headache.
Tension headaches, in particular, indicate a tightness or inflammation somewhere around the brain or in the neck and shoulders. These are the most common type of headaches.
What’s the Difference Between a Migraine and a Headache?
Although it may seem that a headache is just a headache, there are key distinctions that set migraines apart.
Location and Type of Pain
Non-migraines, particularly tension headaches, tend to affect both sides of the head fairly evenly. You likely feel pressure all around the scalp, or in both temples. You may also feel tightness in your neck and shoulders. You may get some pain relief from massaging your neck or temples to relieve the tension.
Although there may be some throbbing pain, a sense of pressure and feeling like something is squeezing your head is more common with regular headaches. Headache pain tends to be mild to moderate for most sufferers.
Migraines, on the other hand, tend to impact one side of the head more severely than the other and usually involve throbbing pain. Migraine headaches typically bring on moderate to severe pain that significantly affects regular daily activities.
As annoying and uncomfortable as regular headaches can be, they rarely have other major symptoms with them. Migraine headaches, however, can cause many other issues and problems for the sufferer, such as:
- Nausea – over 70% of migraine sufferers report nausea as a symptom before or during a headache.
- Sensitivity to light and sound – this is one of the most common migraine headache symptoms.
- Blurred vision
- Pain is worse with movement
- Experiencing an aura – this is a sensation that usually arrives 30-60 minutes before the onset of a migraine. It can include facial tingling or numbness, visual disturbances, or strange smells and sounds.
Triggers and Causes
Tension headaches, as their name implies, arise from tension, pressure, or tightness in the nerves and muscles around the head and neck. This pressure may come from stress, poor posture, injury, or overuse. Sometimes there are trigger points in the neck, shoulders, or back that lead to these headaches.
Non-migraines may also occur with sinus infections, colds, influenza or other illnesses that lead to inflammation. Usually, these headaches subside as the illness runs its course.
Those who suffer from migraine headaches know that many different things can trigger them:
- Monthly cycles and hormone changes – the majority of migraine sufferers are women.
- Food sensitivities
- Bright lights
- Loud noises
When Should You Seek Help?
About 38 million American adults suffer from migraines, but only about half of them seek diagnosis and treatment. If you are experiencing migraine symptoms, it is worth scheduling a visit with your doctor. Aside from pain relief, a provider can make sure there is not a more concerning underlying cause for the headaches and/or migraines with appropriate clinical evaluation. This may involve imaging, special tests, or laboratory blood work, or some combination of these.
If any of these apply to you, it’s time to seek medical help for treatment and symptom control:
- You experience frequent attacks, up to several times per month.
- Your migraines and symptoms control how much you can live your daily life.
- You frequently have to cancel or reschedule activities due to migraines.
- You need pain medication twice a week or more for headache relief.
If you feel like you’re under the control of your migraine headaches and unable to enjoy your daily life on a regular basis, it’s time to let a medical professional help you to get some relief.
As with most medical challenges, there is no one-size-fits-all solution or treatment plan for migraines and other headaches. The following options have proven successful for many patients:
- For tension headaches: Massage, relaxation, and stress reduction techniques are very beneficial in preventing and stopping tension headaches. In addition, limiting screen time and getting enough sleep are essential to stopping this pain in its tracks. When needed, over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen can help alleviate headaches. Another effective treatment option is the use of trigger point injections. Your doctor can talk with you about this form of therapy to see if it is right for you.
- For migraine headaches: In addition to the options above, your doctor can prescribe both preventive medications and drugs that help to stop a migraine once it starts. One of the best techniques to avoid migraines in the first place is to keep a food journal so you can identify any potential food triggers. Many patients can prevent migraine headaches simply by eliminating certain foods. Some patients also find relief through yoga, meditation, and hypnosis. In addition, for migraines that tend to be cyclical and hormonal, addressing any hormonal imbalances can help prevent the onset of migraine headaches.
The team at Camas Swale strives to help you live your best life possible. If headaches and migraines are stopping you from doing that, reach out today to make an appointment.
With a comprehensive list of services, Dr. Armitage provides the care you need at every stage of your life. From family practice to sports physicals to specialized treatment plans, we seek to treat the whole patient with compassion and excellence.
We can’t wait to hear from you and look forward to partnering with you on your health journey. Contact us today.