May 23, 2022

What’s the Difference Between Migraine and Headaches?

Migraine vs. Headaches: What’s the Difference?

When you’re struck by a pounding, throbbing or searing pain or pressure in your head, face or back of the neck, the only thing you care about in that moment is finding relief. But because the best way to find relief can depend on whether you’re experiencing a headache or a migraine, it’s important to know the difference, especially if you find yourself suffering frequently. The medicine or treatment that has the best chance at providing relief can be different for headache versus migraine – and the causes are different as well. Some kinds of headaches also indicate a true medical emergency, so read on to learn more about the difference between migraine and headache.


The word “headache” is a general term for pain, pressure or aching in the head, such as in the forehead or temples, or in the back of the neck. Headaches can last between a half hour to several hours and can range from mild to severe. There are several types of headaches, including:

Tension headaches. The most common type of headache, tension headaches are triggered by things like stress, anxiety and muscle strain.

Sinus headaches. While sinus headaches can sometimes feel like a migraine, they are headaches that happen alongside fever, congestion, sinus pressure and other symptoms of a sinus infection.

Brain structure headaches. A rarer type of headache, brain structure headaches are caused by malformations or injuries of the brain and skull, including tumors and aneurysms.

Thunderclap headaches. This extremely painful headache comes on in under a minute and is a signal that you need emergency care. Thunderclap headaches can be caused by brain hemorrhage, aneurysm, stroke or injury. Fortunately, this type of headache is rare.

You can treat most headaches with over-the-counter pain killers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. Hot or cold compresses, massage and other relaxation techniques can also help.

Migraine headache

While many people think that they are having a migraine if they are experiencing a severe pain in the face or head, migraine is actually a condition that is differentiated from headaches in several ways. First, the symptoms of migraine are broader and include nausea or vomiting, pain in the temples, sensitivity to sound, eye pain and visual disturbances such as seeing spots or being sensitive to light. A person with a migraine can also suffer from muscle aches, especially in the neck and shoulders. Most often, migraine pain is felt on one side of the head but can occur on both sides – and it’s intense enough to interfere with daily activities.

Some migraines are preceded by warning symptoms. The first phase of warning signs, called the premonitory phase, can come with mood changes, food cravings, constipation, diarrhea, and sensory sensitivity. Then, in the aura phase, these signs can include confusion, lack of focus, seeing flashing lights, a tingling sensation in the face or hands, or experiencing other sensory disturbances.

As with headache, there are several subtypes migraine, including:

Cluster headaches. This severe migraine subtype affects one side of the head and comes in cycles, or clusters.

Abdominal migraine. These disturbances typically affect children and cause abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting with or without headache.

Hemiplegic migraine. This rare migraine is preceded by temporary paralysis and comes with dizziness, vision disturbances, and difficulty swallowing or speaking.

The causes of migraine include skipping meals, hormone fluctuations, lack of sleep, anxiety and even some contraceptive use. Treatment for migraine is best managed under the care of a physician and includes medicine like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and other pain killers along with anti-nausea medicine and triptans, which are a special type of medicine especially for treating migraine. You can help prevent migraine by making dietary changes as needed, treating underlying conditions such as anxiety or high blood pressure, and practicing relaxation techniques.

When to see a doctor

If you suffer from ongoing or recurring headaches that are mild or moderate, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician. If you experience a sudden, severe, debilitating headache such as a thunderclap headache, come to Laredo Emergency Room right away to be evaluated. We have the expertise to assess and treat any underlying emergency medical conditions and help you get on the road to recovery.

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