Almost everyone experiences some form of pain in their head at least once in their lives. However, while the occasional headache is the most common type of head pain people experience, many suffer from recurring, severe head pain known as a migraine. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, “migraine is the third most prevalent illness in the world.” So, when you experience intense head pain, how are you supposed to tell if you have a bad headache or a migraine? Learning the difference between a headache and a migraine can help you understand the causes of the pain and the steps you can take to manage it.

What is a Headache?

We have all had one from time to time – mild to moderate pain in your head or neck involving unwanted pressure, aches, and discomfort. The pain can originate from various sources, including trauma to the head or neck, physical activity, environmental stimuli, low blood sugar, and stress. Headaches are irritating and can disrupt your day, but they are typically manageable with over-the-counter pain medicine and some food and relaxation.

What are the common types of headaches?

The International Headache Society has categorized headache disorders into more than 200 types. The more common of these include tension, sinus, and cluster.

A tension headache is caused by the contraction of the muscles in the head or neck. People often describe this headache as feeling like a tight band around the head applying constant pressure. Causes typically stem from anything that places strain on the head or neck muscles, such as stress, anxiety, or poor posture.

If you have ever been sick, you probably have experienced the dreaded sinus headache. In this instance, the pain is caused by the swelling of your sinuses, putting uncomfortable pressure around the eyes, nose, and cheeks. This headache, while a nuisance, will disappear once the sickness has subsided.

Cluster headaches are probably the most confused with migraines because the pain can be excruciating, and, like migraines, the symptoms can include nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. This type of headache gets its name because the headaches occur close to each other in time, referred to as cluster periods. These periods can last several weeks, and then they are followed by a period of months or even years with no headaches.

Is a Migraine Just a Bad Headache?

A migraine is not simply a bad headache; a migraine is a neurological disorder commonly characterized by intense, throbbing head pain on one or both sides of the head. Unlike the common headache, migraines are typically accompanied by incapacitating symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, visual disturbances, sensitivity to light and sound, and dizziness.

While there are certain hallmarks of this disorder, everyone experiences migraines differently with regards to the variety, frequency, and duration of the symptoms. Also, everyone has different triggers that can provoke their migraine attacks. However, common triggers include stress, hormones, changes in the weather, diet, light, and certain odors.

Migraine frequency can range from a few times a year to daily or even constant. In addition, some migraines last for a few hours, while others can last for a few days or even longer.

What are the Migraine Phases?

Migraines usually occur in phases. There are four different phases a migraine sufferer might experience: the prodrome phase, the aura phase, the headache phase, and the postdrome phase. A person suffering from a migraine may experience some or all these phases. While most people often think of the physical pain associated with migraines, not every phase includes pain or discomfort.

During the Prodrome phase, commonly referred to as the “preheadache” phase, you will likely not experience any pain at all. Instead, this begins with other symptoms such as stiff muscles, changes in mood, concentration difficulties, and fatigue. These symptoms can occur for several hours or even multiple days.

The Aura phase can occur before the actual migraine, but it can also develop at the start of a migraine. This phase usually causes visual disturbances, such as blurry vision, blind spots, or even temporary vision loss. This phase can last for several minutes to an hour or longer.

Then, there is the phase that people most understand as being a migraine, and that is the Headache phase. This phase is when the pain sets in and can vary in degree of severity. Besides pain, a person can also experience sleep difficulties, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, smell, and sound during this phase.

The final phase is the Postdrome phase, commonly referred to as the “migraine hangover” phase. This phase typically follows the Headache phase. Migraines take a toll on the body, and people usually feel drained after the migraine attack. During this phase, people can experience fatigue, dizziness, and even body aches.

Conclusion

While there are apparent differences between a typical headache and a migraine, sometimes it can be difficult to label your head pain accurately. Thankfully, there are effective ways of managing and preventing both types of head pain. Your doctor can help you determine if your symptoms are more characteristic of a headache or migraine. If you relate to the signs and symptoms mentioned in this post, talk to your doctor, and discuss a plan of action.
Woman experiencing head pain

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