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March 22, 2022

Headaches vs. Migraines: What's the difference?

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Migraines vs Headaches

When you feel pain in your head or a throbbing ache in your temples, many of us assume that it’s a simple headache. But, there's also a possibility that you're experiencing a migraine headache.  Instead of guessing, it’s important to know and pay attention to your symptoms.  This will help you identify what exactly you’re suffering from. By understanding the differences, you’ll be able to better manage the pain in the future.


Characteristics of Migraines

A migraine is an episodic disorder.  This means that its symptoms appear in separate episodes. Migraines are most often inherited and tied to your genes, but environmental and lifestyle factors can play a role.  Unfortunately, migraines aren’t something that end after an hour.  Instead, the attacks have several events that occur over the span of several hours or even days. To better understand if you’re experiencing a migraine, you have to be aware of the four phases that can occur.


Phases of migraine headaches

Early Symptoms (Prodrome): According to this study, 77 percent of people with migraines experience this phase. The symptoms appear 24 to 48 hours before the headache.  Typical symptoms include yawning, depression, irritability, food cravings, constipation, and neck stiffness.


Migraine Aura: The aura is the second stage of the migraine. Studies have shown that about 25 percent of people with migraines experience one or more focal neurologic symptoms. Symptoms include  movement changes, weakness, loss of muscle control and more. The symptoms during this stage fall into two categories: positive and negative.

The positive symptoms can be visual, somatosensory, or motor.

Seeing bright lines or shapes are visual symptoms. Auditory symptoms reported include hearing noises or music. Somatosensory means symptoms that feel like burning or pain. Migraine sufferers may have jerking or repetitive rhythmic movements as motor symptoms.

Negative symptoms are defined as the loss of function. Common lost functions include vision, hearing, feeling, or movement.


Headache: Migraine headaches are often unilateral (only on one side of the head).  Many people describe them as a throbbing pain. Some people experience nausea or even vomiting due to increased pain.  Many people even report photophobia (intolerance to light) or phonophobia (hypersensitivity to sound).  For this reason, many people seek relief by laying down in a dark, quiet space.  These attacks can last for hours, and even up to days.

Postdrome: Some people refer to this as the “migraine hangover.”  This is because it usually occurs at the end of the headache stage.  During this phase, sudden head movements can cause pain where the headache occurred. Many people feel exhausted during this phase, but some experience feelings of relief.


Characteristics of Headaches

Headaches are super common and are one of the most popular medical complaints. There are so many possible causes of headaches, including loud noises, stress, changes in sleep patterns, certain foods, underlying illnesses, and so much more. The majority of patients that suffer from headaches have a normal neurologic examination. This indicates that the headache is not related to issues with the nervous system.

There are different kinds of headaches, but over 90 percent of them fall under the following categories: migraine headaches, tension-type headaches, and cluster headaches.  Now that we know how to recognize a migraine headache, let’s take a look at the other two common types of headaches.

Tension-type headaches

These headaches are generally mild to moderate pain.  They are usually described as feeling like a tight band is around the head. The common symptoms are: dull, aching head pain, feeling of pressure across the forehead or on the sides and back of the head, and tenderness in the scalp, neck, and shoulder muscles.  These types of headaches are split into two different groups: episodic and chronic.  

Episodic tension-type headaches can last anywhere from 30 minutes long to a week.  If they are frequent, they occur less than 15 days a month for 3 months.  When they are chronic, it means they last for over 15 days a month for at least 3 months.

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches occur in cluster periods, which are frequent attacks that can last from weeks to months. These attacks are usually followed by remission periods when the headaches stop. Many people who experience cluster headaches have reported that the pain often wakes them up in the middle of the night.  The pain is usually felt in or around one eye and on one side of the head. Other common symptoms are restlessness, redness of your eye on the affected side, stuffy or runny nose on the affected side, pale skin or flushing on your face.

When to See a Doctor for Your Headaches

It’s perfectly normal to get a headache every once in a while.  It's also normal to want to check with a doctor when experiencing routine headaches.

Schedule a telehealth visit if your headaches are recurring. You should also talk to a doctor if your headaches are paired with other symptoms. By doing so, your doctor will be able to help identify whether you’re experiencing a migraine or a headache, and what you can do to treat your symptoms.  

If you’re interested in checking your symptoms online, you should try SymptomBot by GoGetDoc.  You can get provides personalized answers to your symptom questions.

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