Migraine vs. Headache: How to tell them apart?


What is a Headache?

A headache, as most people are aware, is a pressurizing pain in the forehead and surrounding region. This type of pain can be both mild and severe and can occur either on the temples, back of the neck, or even in the centre of the forehead. A headache can last for anything from 5 minutes to even days.

The Effects of Headache

Headaches can be debilitating for those who have them more frequently. While a mild headache may simply cause momentary discomfort, a severe one can be quite disabling. It can hamper concentration during study or work. Frequent bouts of such severe headaches can pose a significant hindrance to your quality of life and could be the result of a migraine. However, not all such extreme headaches are caused by migraines, and it will be helpful for you to know the difference between the two.

Types of Headaches

There are two broad categorizations of headaches - primary and secondary. Primary headaches are those that are independent of any other medical causes. For example, a primary headache could be a migraine or a lesser serious one like a tension headache. Secondary headaches are those that are caused by other medical conditions like infections, medicine overuse, or stress.

Migraine vs. Regular Headache

A regular headache could include a mild dull pressure experienced throughout the forehead or even the scalp. When it is not accompanied by any other symptoms like nausea, dizziness, or blind spots in your vision, then it may just be a regular headache. However, if you do experience such accompanying symptoms, then you may be having a migraine, and should see a doctor about it.

A regular headache can also be severe in intensity. For example, you could be experiencing an intense pulsing or throbbing pain throughout your forehead. But once again, if there are no accompanying symptoms like nausea and dizziness, then you may just be having a regular headache. However, if the pain is mainly concentrated on the sides of your forehead, it could be a sign that you have a migraine.

It is sometimes difficult to tell them apart because intense throbbing pain on the sides of your head that is not accompanied by any other symptoms, is usually just a regular headache. So here are a few distinguishing factors that will help you clearly identify whether you have migraine or a regular headache.

Phases of Migraine

Another important distinction between a migraine and a regular headache is that the former has four phases. A person who has migraine will usually experience at least one of these phases and they may not necessarily be in the order given here.

Premonitory phase

This phase of a migraine is characterised by mild symptoms like sudden mood swings, unwarranted food cravings, an unusual stiffness in the neck, and even sensitivity to light and sound. This phase can occur hours or even days before the onset of the actual headache. If you happen to experience such symptoms before an excruciating headache, then you most likely have migraine.

Aura phase

In this phase, the person affected will usually experience disruptions in their vision, hearing, and even speech. Seeing flashes of light, having blind spots in vision, or even a generally blurry vision are common. If you have migraine, you may also experience slurred speech, and a general confusion during the aura phase of migraine. This phase can be debilitating for people who suffer frequent migraine attacks.

Headache phase

Finally, the headache sets in during this phase. You must remember that all the previous phases may not happen in succession and could even overlap with the headache phase. In some severe cases of migraine, the pain can be so intolerable that the person needs emergency medical attention and treatment. If you experience such painful headaches that are not accompanied by the previous two phases, then you may just be having a severe yet regular headache.

Postdrome phase

This is the final phase of a migraine attack and can last for anything between a few hours to even a few days. Since migraine is not your regular headache, it has far-reaching repercussions on physical as well as mental health. The last phase is an example of that since it leaves the person confused, exhausted, and sleepy for an extended period of time.

Migraine vs. Headache - Causes & Treatment

If you are able to recognise that you distinctly experience one or more of these phases, then your headache may not be a regular one but a migraine. Migraine is still a relatively new phenomenon in the medical research community, there are not many answers as to what exactly causes migraine. It could be genetically transmitted or be the result of chemical imbalances in the brain.

Despite migraine being apparently an enervating disorder, there are effective ways to treat it. You can consult a doctor who will probably prescribe pain killers and other preventive medication that help to prevent the onset of the different stages of migraine.

A headache, although far less painful and enfeebling, may also be quite a distress when occurring more frequently. Since a regular headache is usually a secondary headache, it is useful if you know the underlying causes of it. Such a headache could be caused by hypertension, a past head injury, some form of physical or mental trauma, a brain tumour, or even congestion of your sinuses.

To know the effective forms of treatment for secondary headache, you will need to consult a doctor who will then investigate the underlying cause for it. However, you can use pain relieving balms or ointments or any other over-the-counter (OTC) pain killer medicines to temporarily relieve such headaches.

Whether it is a migraine or a regular headache, it is always wise to consult a doctor at the earliest. With proper and timely diagnosis any underlying causes can be found out and treatment can be commenced. Therefore, you should never ignore a headache if it relapses quite frequently.