Headaches are extremely common, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a pain to deal with (literally!).
If you’ve suffered from a migraine headache, then you know all too well how miserable they can be.
How do you know if the pain in your head is a regular headache or a migraine?
Thankfully there are several ways to tell the difference between migraines vs headaches.
In this article, we’ll help you determine if your symptoms are consistent with a migraine or a headache and will explain the common causes, prevention, and treatment of both.
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What is a headache?
A headache is a pain or discomfort that’s felt in your head or face. Headaches are very common – nearly everyone will experience at least one headache in their lifetime.
There are several causes for headaches, but a few of them include:
- Injury to your head
- Overuse of certain medications
- Jaw problems
- Issues with your eyes, ears, nose, and/or throat
Some of the more common types of headaches are tension headaches, sinus headaches, and cluster headaches.
Tension headaches are very common and usually a result of stress or muscle tension. If you have a tension headache, you’ll experience a steady aching (versus throbbing pain) in your head, typically on both sides. It’s estimated that the majority of headaches experienced are tension headaches.
Sinus headaches cause pain in your sinus area, which is around your eyes, nose, and cheeks. You might even feel pain in your teeth with a sinus headache or have a stuffy nose, and the pain will usually be worse when you lean over or lie down.
Sinus headaches can be similar to migraines in some cases, but here are some ways you can tell if you have a sinus headache and not a migraine:
- You recently experienced a respiratory infection or cold
- The presence of thick mucus
- Reduced sense of smell
- Teeth pain
Cluster headaches are less common and result in a sharp or piercing sensation on one side of your head, usually including your eye area.
These headaches occur in clusters, meaning you’ll experience a steady bout of attacks followed by periods of relief or remission.
Cluster headaches usually last around 1-3 hours each time, but you might experience them multiple times a day to every few days.
Remission from cluster headaches can last from months to even years, and men are typically affected by them more than women.
What is a migraine?
While the exact cause of migraines isn’t clear, they are thought to be caused by abnormal activity in your brain, which temporarily impacts the nerve signals, chemicals, and blood vessels in your brain.
Migraine symptoms will vary among people, but some of the more common symptoms include:
- An intense throbbing pain in your head, usually worse on one side (but can involve both sides of your head), as well as pain in your eyes and neck
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Visual disturbances – some people experience auras with migraines, which are flashes of light in your field of vision
- Difficulty concentrating or communicating
For people who experience auras (around one-third of migraine sufferers) – these are usually experienced before a migraine hits and can be thought of as a “warning sign.”
- Seeing flashing lights, zig-zag patterns, or blind spots
- Feeling numbness or pins and needles sensation in your hand/arm as well as your face
- Feeling dizzy
- Difficult speaking
- Loss of consciousness (rare)
Migraine vs headache
The main difference between a migraine vs a headache is the severity. Headaches aren’t usually as severe as migraines, and you’re more likely to be able to go about your daily life with a headache. A migraine can be so debilitating that you have to leave work or go escape to a dark, quiet room to ride it out.
Another key difference between migraines vs headaches is that a headache is usually just one symptom of a migraine, whereas a headache can occur on its own without other symptoms (like nausea, vomiting, etc.).
There are several differences between a headache and a migraine. To determine if it’s a migraine, the acronym POUND can be helpful, which includes several of the diagnostic criteria for migraines.
P is for pulsating pain; O is for one-day duration of severe untreated attacks; U is for unilateral (one-sided) pain; N is for nausea and vomiting; D is for disabling intensity.
|Duration||30 minutes to several hours||4-72 hours; some people with chronic migraine experience migraines 15 or more days per month|
|Symptoms||Pain is usually more generalized in your head compared to a migraine; doesn’t include aura or many other accompanying migraine symptoms.||Pain is usually worse on one side of your head and comes with many other symptoms like visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, difficulty speaking, sensitivity to light and sound, etc.|
|Severity||Less severe than migraines (except for cluster headaches, a less common headache that is more intense in severity)||More severe; can be described as debilitating|
|Prevalence||More common than migraines; around ⅓ of the population is estimated to get headaches||Less common than headaches; migraines impact ~10% of people worldwide|
|Stages||Doesn’t have specific phases||Four stages: prodrome, aura, attack, and post-drome|
Another main difference between headaches and migraines is that migraine sufferers can experience a “postdrome” as their migraine goes away.
A postdrome is also called a “migraine hangover” and can last for several days after you’ve experienced a migraine.
Some typical postdrome symptoms include feeling achy, having a dull, mild headache, and feeling weary.
- Causes: both headaches and migraines can be caused by factors like stress and lack of sleep.
- Pain area: headaches and migraines can impact your head/face area.
- Population impacted: women are more likely to experience migraines and headaches compared to men.
- Treatment: both headaches and migraines can be treated with over-the-counter medications (some migraines don’t respond to OTC pain meds and require prescription medications like triptans).
Causes and triggers
According to the United Kingdom National Health Service (NHS), here are ten potential triggers for headaches:
- Relaxing after you’ve been stressed
- Pent-up anger
- Having poor posture
- Perfume and other scents
- Changes in weather
- Grinding teeth/jaw issues
- Bright lights
- Food triggers (you’ll likely need to keep a food/symptom journal to track down potential trigger foods)
- Sex (known as “sex headaches”)
- Cold foods like ice cream (known as “brain freeze” or ice cream headaches; these typically go away much faster than regular headaches)
Because the exact cause of migraines isn’t quite clear, the list of potential triggers for migraines can vary a lot among people.
Some people experience migraines and can’t pinpoint their exact triggers, either.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, here are the ten most common migraine triggers (you’ll notice some overlap with the triggers for regular headaches):
- Changes in your sleep schedule or an irregular sleep schedule
- Hormonal changes – women are three times more likely to experience migraines than men, which can occur around the time of menstruation and during pregnancy
- Caffeine and alcohol
- Changes in the weather, especially high humidity and heat
- Diet – specifically foods that contain histamine and MSG, chocolate, cheese/other dairy products, some artificial sweeteners, caffeine, cured meats, and anything with a strong smell
- Dehydration (a common trigger in up to one-third of migraine sufferers)
- Light (both natural and artificial light, including flashing or flickering lights)
- Certain smells (fragrances, etc.)
- Medication overuse – this phenomenon occurs when you take acute migraine medication for more than ten days out of the month, which can cause rebound migraines and is called a Medication Overuse Headache (MOH).
As you can see, a migraine comes with many more specific symptoms than a headache alone, which can help you determine if you’re experiencing a migraine vs a headache.
|Generalized pain in your head; usually described as a dull ache but can sometimes be throbbing or stabbing||A pulsing pain in your head or face, usually one-sided|
|Nausea and/or vomiting|
|Sensitivity to light and sound|
|Visual changes (aura)|
|Pins and needles sensation in your hand, arm, and/or face|
Home remedies for migraines and headaches
Headaches and migraines can be treated with over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen sodium (Aleve), as well as specific migraine medications like Excedrin, which contains some caffeine.
Caffeine is another OTC home remedy that can help with migraines (and sometimes headaches). You can use caffeine capsules or drink something containing caffeine, like coffee or soda.
Resting in a dark, quiet place (if possible) can help, especially with migraines if you become sensitive to light and sound. Using an eye mask to block out light can bring some relief.
Applying ice to your head and temples can relieve headache pain, especially if you don’t want to take any medications (such as during pregnancy).
Ice helps constrict blood vessels which can relieve headache pain, which typically occurs when blood vessels dilate (get bigger).
Certain types of essential oils are known for their potential to relieve headache pain. Peppermint, lavender, and chamomile might be especially helpful for relieving headaches and migraines.
One study specifically looked at lavender essential oil’s ability to relieve migraine symptoms when inhaled and concluded that lavender inhalation could be a safe treatment for migraines.
While you can’t always pinpoint triggers for your headaches or migraines, you might notice some general trends when you get a headache.
Watch out for the most common triggers like stress, sleep deprivation, irregular eating habits, and dehydration, and try to prevent them from happening as best you can.
Keeping a symptom journal can help you identify what might have caused your headache, especially if they’re occurring often.
For instance, you might recall that you had a diet soda with a specific artificial sweetener a few hours before your migraine, so that would be worth jotting down to see if that could be one of your triggers.
How to know whether you have a headache or a migraine
As we mentioned earlier, there are several differences between migraines and headaches to help you determine which one you have.
Here is a useful tool to help you decide if your headache is a headache or if you might be experiencing a migraine.
Keep in mind that symptoms vary among people, so this won’t always be a guaranteed way to determine if you’re having a headache vs a migraine.
|Are you experiencing vision disturbances?||Migraine||Headache|
|Is the pain one-sided?||Likely migraine||Likely headache|
|Are you nauseous and/or vomiting?||Migraine||Headache|
|Are you extra sensitive to light and sound?||Migraine||Headache|
|Are you experiencing tingling in your hand, arm, and/or face?||Migraine||Headache|
|Is the pain steady vs. pulsating?||Likely headache||Likely migraine (pulsating)|
|Can you go about your day mostly normally?||Likely headache||Likely migraine|
|Do you feel sick even after the headache has gone away?||Migraine||Headache|
|Does the headache accompany sinus pain, congestion, or other respiratory symptoms?||Headache (including sinus headaches)||Migraine|
The main difference between migraines vs headaches is that migraines have other symptoms besides a headache, such as nausea, vomiting, vision changes, and more.
In addition, the pain from migraines is considered more severe than headaches, and they can last much longer than headaches.