read Headache vs Migraine: What’s the Difference?

Headache vs Migraine: What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between headache and migraine?

Be it a dull discomfort or a throbbing pain, a headache can be a painful experience. It can interfere with your daily activities and force you to take the day off. Migraines can be worse. However, all headaches are not migraines. The triggers, causes, and symptoms of headaches and migraines are quite different and so is the treatment. It is essential to have better awareness to manage these conditions efficiently.  

What is a headache?

Headaches can cause mild to severe pain and a pressure sensation can be felt in any region of the head, including the temples, forehead, and the back of the neck. The pain can extend to both sides of the head or radiate from a point. This pain can be dull, sharp, or throbbing. It can last from a few hours to a few days.

Types of headaches

Broadly, there are two types of headaches — primary and secondary. Primary headaches occur because of problems involving the pain pathways in the head. This category is not a symptom of an underlying condition. Secondary headaches are an indication of an underlying condition, which affects the pain pathways in the brain.

Most headaches fall under the category of primary headaches. Some of the common types of primary headaches include tension headache, cluster headache, and migraine. Let’s explore these categories one by one.

Tension headaches

It is themost common type of headache. In this form, you may experience pain on both sides of the head, or it may feel like a tight band around the head. Stress, a strain on the eyes, hunger, and lack of sleep are some of the common causes of tension headaches.

Cluster headaches

As the name suggests, this type of headache occurs in clusters. The pain can occur daily, and generally, at the same time. Cluster headaches can take place several times a day and last for months or may happen every other day. 

In this form, the pain is severe and felt on one side of the head, usually behind the eye. Cluster headaches occur when there is a widening of blood vessels in the brain due to the release of chemicals like serotonin and histamine, which can be brought about by physical stress, high altitudes, or bright lights.

What is a migraine?

It is a common misconception that a migraine is just a severe headache. However, there is more to this condition. Migraine is:

  • A neurological condition resulting from changes in interactions involving nerve pathways. Neurotransmitters and chemicals like serotonin are believed to play a role in this process. 
  • A migraine attack can cause moderate pain or a severe throbbing, the pulsing sensation felt on one side of the head. It can last for a few hours to a few days.
  • A migraine is usually accompanied by other symptoms like sensitivity to sound and/or light, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting

 What triggers a migraine?

Although the precise cause of migraine is not established, many triggers have been associated with it. These include stress, fatigue, poor sleep, certain food products, weather change, bright lights, and strong smells. Moreover, genetics may play a role in the development of migraines. 

A few important triggers associated with migraine are:

  • Changes in estrogen levels
  • Items like caffeine, cheese, processed foods, aspartame (artificial sweetener), and monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Alcoholic beverages like wine
  • Fasting, sleep disturbances like jet lag, lack of sleep, or too much sleep, and allergies
  • Intense physical activities, loud noises, strong odors, and cigarette smoke
  • Fluctuations in weather and atmospheric pressure

Risk factors of migraine

Here are a few prominent risk factors related to migraines. 

1. Age

Migraine can affect anyone at any age. The first episode is often seen during adolescence; incidences may increase in your 30s and the intensity and frequency may lessen with age.

2. Gender 

Evidence suggests that women are more likely to have migraines than men. For women who experience migraines, the pain may begin right before or after their menstrual cycle. Migraines are also associated with pregnancy and menopause, owing to the hormonal changes, mainly, change in estrogen levels. Post-menopause, the condition improves. 

Also read: Menstruation: Period Facts You Should Know

3. Family history

If you have a family history of migraines, you are at a greater risk.

Managing migraines

Although there is no known cure for migraine, there are treatments available to control the symptoms and measures to prevent future attacks. Migraines often require a prescribed treatment plan and it is advisable to avoid self-medication. Here are a few ways to control migraines:

1. Lifestyle modifications

A few measures to help control and prevent migraine attacks include:

  • Indulging in regular physical activity
  • Avoiding trigger foods and beverages
  • Adopting good sleep habits and ensuring that you get adequate sleep
  • Doing stress management practices like yoga and meditation

Also read: Meditation for Beginners: A Step-by-step Guide

2. Painkillers

Over-the-counter and prescription painkillers are available to control the pain. Some of the medications used to treat migraines include antidepressants, botulinum toxin A (Botox) injections, blood pressure medicines, and anti-seizure medicines. Your choice of medication would depend on the intensity and frequency of your headaches, accompanying symptoms, and overall health. Remember, take medication only on a doctor’s advice. 

3. Tracking migraine patterns

Keep a journal to track patterns and triggers of your migraine attacks. Being aware of the day, time, and environmental factors associated with each of the attacks can help your physician draft an effective treatment plan.

When is a headache a medical emergency?

Most headaches can be managed with over-the-counter painkillers. However, certain symptoms associated with headaches may require immediate medical attention. These include:

1. Sudden onset of headache with severe vomiting or stiffness of the neck
2. The onset of headache after the age of 50, especially, if no such occurrence has happened earlier 
3. Increased frequency or severity of headache
4. New onset of headache with an underlying medical condition
5. Loss of movement in the limb, difficulty speaking, confusion or altered behavior, distortion of the face, rolling of eyes, and seizures may indicate a stroke
6. Headache after head trauma

Although intense headaches can be confused with migraines, there are some key features to differentiate the two. Tension headaches usually occur as a dull, mild, or moderate pain and, in some cases, severe pain that generally lasts a few hours. Most migraine attacks occur as a severe, throbbing pain on one side of the head. The pain can last for some hours to a few days. Other signs of migraine include vomiting, nausea, and increased sensitivity to light and sound. With proper awareness and treatment, you can manage migraines and headaches effectively.

References
1. Overview Migraine. National Health Services UK. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/migraine  (accessed Jan 6, 2021).
2. Migraine. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20360201 (accessed Jan 6, 2021).
3. Migraine. MedicinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000709.htm (accessed Jan 6, 2021).
4. Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference. Penn Medicine. 2019; published online Nov 1.  https://www.pennmedicine.org/updates/blogs/health-and-wellness/2019/november/migraines-vs-headaches (accessed Jan 6, 2021).
5. Headache. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/symptoms/headache/basics/definition/sym-20050800
6. Headache disorders. World Health Organization. 2016; published online Apr 8. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/headache-disorders (accessed Jan 6, 2021).
7. Clinch CR. Evaluation of acute headaches in adults. Am Fam Physician. 2001; 63: 685-93.

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