Both headaches and migraines can leave you with intense sensations of pain or pressure in your head. Though it is at times difficult to know whether you’re experiencing a severe headache or a migraine headache, it’s important to understand the difference.
When it comes to treatment, recognizing the symptoms of headaches and migraines can mean faster and more effective relief. In some cases, it can even help you to prevent migraines, or reduce their frequency and severity.
Read on to find out how to tell the difference between a common headache and a migraine.
Headaches: Onset, Types, and Symptoms
Headaches cause unpleasant symptoms, such as pressure, pain, and aching in your head. They come on suddenly, usually without preceding warning signs or symptoms and cause pain that ranges in intensity from mild to severe.
In most cases, pain occurs on both sides of the head, commonly affecting areas such as the forehead, temples, and back of the neck. Headaches can last up to an entire week, in extreme cases—but most of the time, they last between a half an hour to a few hours.
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache, according to the Mayo Clinic. A tension headache can leave you feeling like your head is being squeezed by an elastic band.
Most of the time, the pain is dull, and of mild to moderate intensity. Tension headaches are caused by muscle contractions and can be triggered by stress, muscle strain, or anxiety.
Other common types of headaches include:
- Cluster headaches. These extremely painful headaches affect one side of the head. As the name suggests, they come in “clusters.” Headache-free periods are followed by headache attacks.
- Sinus headaches. Sinus headaches are easily confused with migraines, but the key difference is that they usually co-occur with symptoms of a sinus infection, including congestion, a stuffy nose, facial pressure, coughing, and sometimes a fever.
Migraines: Onset, Types, and Symptoms
Migraine headaches are usually intense or severe in nature, and in most cases head pain isn’t the only symptom. Common symptoms of migraines include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in the temples
- Extreme sensitivity to light or sound
- Pain behind one ear or eye
- Seeing dark spots or flashing lights
- Temporary loss of vision
- Lack of appetite
Compared to common headaches, migraine pain tends to be moderate to severe. It is typically restricted to one side of the head, though in some cases, migraine pain may affect both sides of the head.
Other important differences have to do with the presentation of pain. Migraine headaches cause intense, often throbbing or pulsating pain. This kind of pain makes it difficult to go about your day-to-day routine. In some cases, it may be severe enough to send you to the emergency room.
Signs of an Oncoming Migraine
People who suffer from migraine headaches may experience warning signs one or two days before the pain begins. This is called the prodrome phase, and it includes symptoms such as excessive fatigue, depression, increased yawning, food cravings, difficulty concentrating, increased urination, hyperactivity, neck stiffness, and irritability.
Though not everyone experiences these symptoms, they are a key difference between traditional headaches and migraines.
Migraines with Aura
Migraine attacks are typically divided into two types: a migraine with aura and migraine without aura. “Aura” refers to certain sensations that the individual may experience prior to or during a migraine.
They commonly include disruptions of the visual system, such as seeing flashing lights, jagged lines, stars, sparkles, dots, or dark or coloured spots. Visual symptoms are often accompanied by sensitivity to light.
But aura can also be associated with other symptoms, including speech and hearing disturbances. Psychological symptoms of aura may include fear, confusion, thirst, hunger, mood swings, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating, while physiological symptoms include facial numbness, vertigo, fainting, weakness, and increased urination.
Migraine symptoms can vary a lot from person to person, which is why it’s important to track your symptoms in order to discuss them with your doctor.
Your doctor can help you to identify whether what you’re experiencing is indeed a migraine headache. With a detailed record of your symptoms, your doctor will be able to better recommend appropriate treatments.
The Bottom Line
There are key differences in the symptoms of a headache versus those of a migraine. Keep in mind:
- Headaches tend to come on suddenly, while migraines may include warning signs.
- Headache pain is most often described as mild, dull pressure, while migraine pain is described as intense pulsing and/or throbbing.
- Headaches affect both sides of the head, while migraines are more likely to affect one side.
- Migraines are more likely to appear with additional symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, or visual disturbances, such as flashing lights or dark spots.
- Treatments for headaches and migraines vary. Keep a record of the symptoms you experience and make an appointment to discuss them with your doctor. Your doctor can help you to find the right treatment for you.
The information in this article should not be taken as professional medical advice. If you are having issues or have health-related concerns, you should see your personal physician.