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Bad Headache...or Migraine? Know the Difference

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Bad Headache...or Migraine? Know the Difference

It’s a rare individual who has never experienced a headache. "Headache" is a general term for any type of pressure and aching within the head, ranging from mild to severe. It can be spurred by a range of factors, from lack of sleep to hormonal changes. 

Less prevalent — but also still quite common — are migraine headaches. Migraine tends to cause more severe head pain than a normal headache, and potentially may be accompanied by aura, including light and sound sensitivity, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. 

Although a variety of effective treatments exist for migraine relief, many people are not getting the help they need. Why? Simply because they don’t realize their “bad headaches” are actually episodes of migraine

It’s estimated that in the US alone, although 12 percent – or 36 million people – do have diagnosed migraines, nearly half of migraines remain undiagnosed. In fact, as many as 1 billion people worldwide have migraine, making it the third most common illness in the world. It’s likely that many millions of people worldwide experience migraines without knowing it.

Let’s review the differences between headache and migraine, so you’ll recognize migraine if it appears and can take steps to relieve it. 

Common Types of Headache

  • Tension headache is the most common headache pain. It is often reported as tension that begins in the back of the head and moves forward. Penn Medicine lists eye strain, stress, and hunger as typical causes of tension headache. Although tension headache can be chronic, lifestyle changes — reducing screen time or adjusting over-the-counter medications — can often be effective in treating tension headaches. 
  • Sinus headache can occur when you're congested and nasal passages are swollen, resulting in painful pressure behind the cheeks, nose, and eyes. Sinus headache may be accompanied by other cold or flu symptoms, such as a runny nose, sore throat, or fever. Over-the-counter painkillers and decongestants can often effectively treat these headaches. 
  • Brain structure headaches are specifically caused by injuries or medical conditions impacting the brain — these can range from concussion to congenital disorders. 
  • Thunderclap headaches are characterized by severe pain in the head that occurs within an instant. A thunderclap headache may be caused by a life-threatening medical condition like hemorrhage, aneurysm, or stroke. If you feel this type of headache, seek medical help immediately.
  • Cluster headaches, as the name suggests, occur in "clusters" — at least once daily, typically around the same time. For some people, they may even occur more frequently than once a day, in a pattern that lasts for several months. Cluster headaches result from dilation in the blood vessels of the brain, sparked by exercise or physical exertion, bright and flashing lights, even changes in altitude. (Note: although migraine attacks can sometimes come in clusters, too, migraines manifest other symptoms as well.)

How is Migraine Different from Headache?

The primary and most well-known symptom of a migraine is severe head pain. But unlike a “bad headache,” migraine is actually a neurological disorder that can impact nerve pathways and brain chemicals. And a migraine’s impact on blood vessels in the brain and surrounding tissues typically causes a range of symptoms beyond just head pain. 

Everyone’s migraine experience is truly unique, depending on the complexities of each person’s body and brain. Not every individual will experience every possible migraine symptom, but here are the most common symptoms that a headache specialist will note when evaluating if you have migraine: 

  • Nausea 
  • Increased sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Stiffness in your neck and shoulders
  • Mood swings or food cravings preceding the headache

Aura Before Migraine

One reliable clue that a migraine may be imminent is the sensation of aura before head pain begins. According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 15% to 20% of people who have migraines also experience auras. 

Aura is often described as a strobe-type effect before the onset of the head pain — flashes of light typically lasting 5 minutes to 2 hours. Auras can be associated with visual disturbances such as seeing spots, lines, shapes, or colors. It may also present as a tingling sensation, numbness or weakness. 

Migraine Frequency

The frequency of migraine attacks varies from person to person. Some people may experience one attack per month or per year, while others have multiple episodes every month or even every week.

Therefore, migraines are categorized as either episodic or chronic. Migraine that occurs up to 14 days a month is characterized as episodic; 15 days or more a month is considered chronic. If you find you have head pain more than once a week, you may very well be experiencing migraine disorder. 

Migraine Causes and Triggers

Migraine and headaches can be spurred by many of the same things, although it can be challenging to trace their causes. Here are some common triggers that may cause or intensify migraine or increase its frequency:

  • Environmental factors: This broad category can include stress, certain food types, lack of sleep, or changes in weather and air pressure. 
  • Gender and hormonal shifts: According to the Cleveland Clinic, women who have menstrual cycles and related hormonal shifts are three times more likely to experience migraine than women who don't. Premenstrual migraines can regularly coincide with the monthly drop in estrogen and progesterone levels in the body. 
  • Allergies: Similar to sinus headaches, allergies can cause allergic rhinitis, pressure and inflammation that leads to migraines. 
  • Family history and genetics: People with a family history of migraines are more likely to experience them. If one parent has a history of migraines, their child has a 50% chance of having them; with both parents, the risk jumps to 75%.

When to Seek Medical Help

Whether you have a bad headache or an actual migraine attack, it’s time to seek immediate medical attention for severe symptoms (severe pain; vision, speech, or movement problems); for fever along with your head pain; or for head pain that’s sudden and "explosive in nature." 

But even with less serious symptoms, you may benefit from consulting a specialist about migraine relief. Tracking your symptoms can illustrate patterns, such as time of day your migraines normally occur, possible triggers of your head pain, and descriptions of how your pain feels. This tracker can help your medical professional determine the most individualized and effective treatment for you. 

Although research has still not uncovered a cure for migraine or headaches, many options exist to help you feel better and live your best life. By consulting a specialist, you can learn about lifestyle changes, preventive medications, or a hybrid approach that may give you relief and reduce the frequency of your head pain. 

Have you met Mable? Mable can help reduce your migraine days by matching you with treatment tailored to your DNA. Take our quiz and see if it might be a fit for you.  

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  1. Baptist Health South Florida. Is Your Headache a Migraine? https://baptisthealth.net/baptist-health-news/migraine-headaches/
  2. Mable. What is Migraine? https://www.trymable.com/blog/what-is-migraine
  3. Migraine.com. What is Migraine? https://migraine.com/what-is-migraine
  4. Penn Medicine. Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference. https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2019/november/migraines-vs-headaches
  5. Cleveland Clinic. Migraine Headaches. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/5005-migraine-headaches
  6. NIH/National Library of Medicine. Defining the Differences Between Episodic Migraine and Chronic Migraine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3258393/
  7. Cleveland Clinic. Menstrual Migraines (Hormone Headaches). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/8260-menstrual-migraines-hormone-headaches
  8. Mable Website. https://www.trymable.com
  9. Mable. DNA Quiz. https://www.trymable.com/quiz/dna

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Updated on
October 5, 2022
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