Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference

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Virtually everyone feels pain or pressure in their head from time to time. Knowing whether what you’re experiencing is a typical headache or a migraine is important since it affects how the condition is treated. That knowledge can also be used to determine how to prevent head pain in the first place.

The Difference Between Headaches and Migraines

Understanding Headaches

A standard headache sometimes referred to as a tension headache, is a feeling of pain or tension in the head that can range from mild to severe. While the pain can occur in different areas including the temples, forehead or base of the skull, with a tension headache the sensation tends to be on both sides. Headaches can be caused by muscle strain, stress, illness or anxiety, and may last from less than an hour to many days. As much as 85-90 percent of head pain is from a standard headache.

Most headaches resolve on their own. However, over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen, acetaminophen or aspirin can help minimize or eliminate the pain. There are also steps that can be taken to help prevent headaches or reduce the severity of the pain, including:

  • Meditation
  • Massage
  • Stretching of the neck muscles
  • Applying heat to the head and neck with a warm compress, shower or bath
  • Relaxation techniques

In general, decreasing stress and muscle tension is good for avoiding or treating headaches.

Understanding Migraines

A migraine is a typically throbbing pain in the head that ranges from moderate to severe. It can occur around the eyes or on the temples, jaw, face or neck, and is most commonly only on one side of the head. In addition to the pain, migraines can cause nausea and sensitivity to light, sounds or smells. Migraines can occur with or without what is called an “aura.”

An aura can present as flashes of light or lines in the field of vision, numbness or tingling in the face or hands, difficulty thinking or heightened sense of touch, taste or smell. Typically, the migraine occurs 10-30 minutes after the aura. Some migraine sufferers get the “prodrome” phase a day or two before the pain. It can cause symptoms like neck stiffness, food cravings, irritability, frequent yawning, depression, and constipation.

The exact cause of migraines is unknown, but the condition is believed to affect brain chemistry and is considered to be a neurological disease. Most people who get migraines have one or more “triggers.” These can include stress and anxiety, hormonal changes, poor sleep or consuming certain foods or beverages. It’s helpful for migraine sufferers to keep a journal of their activities and diet in order to pinpoint their trigger or triggers.

The best way to deal with migraines is to prevent them by taking actions such as:

  • Reducing stress through activities like meditation or yoga
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Taking prescription drugs like blood pressure medication or antidepressants
  • Avoiding food triggers

If a migraine begins, medications like pain relievers, triptans, and anti-nausea drugs can be effective in minimizing the symptoms and the duration of the head pain. Resting in a dark, quiet room can also be helpful. In addition, there are new treatments that use different types of devices to stimulate the vagus nerve or direct pulses of magnetic energy into the brain to provide relief.

If you suffer from frequent headaches or migraines, you should talk with your doctor about prevention and treatment options.

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