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Headaches vs. Migraines: Understanding the Differences Between the Two

A woman having a headache while working

Headaches vs Migraines: Understanding the Differences Between the Two

People often consider a migraine a headache and headaches as migraines. However, there are differences that you need to note, especially if you’d like to be treated for either of these two health conditions.

Headaches can be either defined as primary or secondary while migraines, which also are categorized under several classifications, are more intense and disruptive. People who suffer from frequent migraines tend to stay away from light and sound, as this often makes the condition even worse.

Let’s look at the difference between these two so that you have a better understanding of each.

Headaches vs. Migraines: A Look at the Differences


The following information will help you wade through the differences when comparing headaches vs. migraines. Some people may look at a headache as just a headache. However, neurologists do not make this clear-cut distinction. They either define a headache as a primary head pain or a secondary type of headache.

The Differences Between Primary and Secondary Headaches

A migraine is an example of a primary type of head pain. Tension headaches are also considered primary headaches.

A secondary headache occurs when the patient experiences another medical condition, such as the overuse of a medicine or is diagnosed, for example, with an infection.

Primary Headaches Types

Primary headaches fall under some distinct classifications, as noted below.

Tension Type Headaches

Primary headaches, such as tension headaches, happen frequently and affect a little over 40% of headache sufferers worldwide. Tension headaches produce chronic head pain and discomfort.

Therefore, a primary headache, such as a tension headache, may occur as often as 15 days each month. The headaches may develop from jaw-clenching, insomnia, anxiety, or depression.

Some tension headaches evolve when a patient is hungry or when they have a condition called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea happens when a patient stops breathing for a short time during sleep. If the condition is treated, tension headaches happen less frequently.

A tension headache normally is a reaction to stress. Therefore, you can significantly improve your health by managing your stress and following stress-reduction practices, such as meditation and life-balance work styles.

Cluster Type Headaches

Cluster heachaches are primary headaches that trigger intense pain on one side of the head or directly behind the eye. As the name suggests, the headaches appear in clusters. Therefore, multiple headaches occur at the same time during the day over a period of several weeks. These cyclic headaches happen for a specific time and stop for a while on a recurring basis.

When cluster headaches occur, they affect the patient for a period of six weeks to about 3 months overall. Males complain more about headaches than women. Besides experiencing a pronounced feeling of pain behind the eye, you may experience watery and irritated eyes. Some people feel more restless or experience changes in their heart’s rhythm during these periods.

Hemicrania Type Headaches

This head pain, which usually affects one side of the head on a regular basis, can last for several days or several weeks. Hemicrania patients may experience ongoing headaches for some time followed by a period that is headache-free.

Besides head pain, headache sufferers may experience watery eyes, light and sound sensitivity, eye irritation, congestion, sweating, nausea and vomiting.

Secondary Head Pain

Secondary headaches, as mentioned, happen in response to another medical condition. These headaches may appear as a result of the following:

Migraine Attacks and Episodes

 A migraine is different from a headache as it not only represents a painful head pain, the head will throb as well. This type of discomfort can last from several hours to several days. While migraine pain usually affects one side of a person’s head, it can affect both sides of the head as well.

Migraines may result from hormonal imbalances, excessive stress or anxiety, or develop from sensory stimuli. Strong odors, such as paint thinners, or sensitivity to sound or light can trigger a migraine attack.

The Phases of a Migraine

Migraines may feature four separate phases. However, not everyone experiences each and every phase.

The Premonitory Phase

The premonitory phase of a migraine is the phase when you know that the migraine is about to emerge. You may feel moody or experience light or sound sensitivity. Certain odors may make you feel nauseous or sick. During this phase, you  may yawn frequently or notice your neck stiffening. Some patients experience diarrhea or constipation or crave certain kinds of foods.

The Aura Phase of a Migraine

An aura is a disturbance that affects a person’s senses during a migraine. Therefore, auras may affect the patient’s speech, touch, or vision.

For instance, you may experience a visual aura if you see flashes of lights or your vision blurs. Some migraine patients see zig-zags of lines or experience blind spots that increase over time. Around 90% of migraine patients experience these visual manifestations.

A sensorimotor aura, or sensory and motor auras, occur about 40% of the time and may or may not appear with visual auras. Patients may feel a tingling or numbness - most often in the hands or the face. A dysphasic aura may cause the patient to slur their words or have a hard time understanding what is being said. This type of aura affects about 10% of migraine sufferers.

The Headache Phase

A migraine headache may range from mild to severe, with some migraines being so severe they lead to emergency care. The pain often worsens when a person increases their physical activity or is exposed to smells, sound, and light.

The Postdrome Phase of a Migraine

The postdrome phase occurs after a migraine fades. During this phase, the sufferer may feel confused or exceptionally tired. Postdrome phases may span from several hours to several days.

Aura and Non-Aura Migraines

Migraines may occur with or without an aura. The common migraine--or the head pain we typically associate with migraine pain--may develop without an aura. These migraine sufferers experience intense and throbbing pain, usually on one side of their head. About one in three patients will experience an aura with a migraine. Therefore, a migraine may or may not follow an aura.

See a Neurologist About Your Frequent Headaches Today

If you are suffering from any type of ongoing head pain, find out the root of your problem so you can have it treated and live a more pain-free life. The board-certified neurologists at South Valley Neurology are trained professionals with an abundance of resources to find the cause of your pain and create a treatment plan to manage it.

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