It can often be difficult to tell the difference between a migraine and a headache. Here’s why the two are different and how you can both treat pain.
When you experience pain or pressure in your head, it is often difficult to tell whether it is a headache or a migraine. Knowing the difference is extremely important and can help you find faster relief with the right treatment.
So is this throbbing pain in the temples just a common headache? Maybe not. The Migraine Foundation estimates that approximately 12% of the population, including children, suffer from migraines. However, in most cases, migraines are underdiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Figures from the US show that less than 5% of those affected are properly diagnosed and treated.
Therefore, before dismissing your pain as just another headache, it is important to understand the differences in symptoms, as a more accurate diagnosis is critical to pain management and prevention.
What is a headache?
Headache is pain in the head, often described as pressure or pain, and can range from mild to severe in intensity. This pain can be in the forehead, temples, and / or neck.
There are many different types of headaches. The most common types are:
Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. The pain typically associated with this type of headache usually spreads across both sides of the head, mostly coming from the back of the head and moving forward.
The most common causes of tension headaches are stress, hunger, and eye strain. Other causes include depression, lack of sleep, poor posture, and clenching of the jaw. Tension headaches can cause chronic pain.
Cluster headaches tend to be extremely painful. What sets them apart from other types of headache is that they occur in “clusters,” which means that they usually occur in cycles of headache attacks, followed by headache-free periods. In some cases, these attacks can be felt every day, sometimes at the same time every day.
Cluster headaches arise as a result of the expansion of blood in the blood vessels in the brain, which occurs when the hormones serotonin and histamine are released. The underlying causes include: exposure to bright light, physical exertion, and changes in altitude.
Sinus headaches are usually confused with migraines. As the name suggests, this type of headache occurs with symptoms of sinus infection such as constipation, cough, fever, and nasal congestion.
What are migraines?
Most people associate the term migraine with severe headaches. However, headaches are only a symptom of migraines. Other symptoms related to migraines include:
- Pain behind one eye or ear
- Pain in the temples
- Sensitivity to light and / or sound
- Temporary loss of vision
- Seeing dots or flashing lights
- Extreme tiredness
Compared to headaches in general, the pain associated with migraines can be moderate to severe. Although migraine headaches typically affect one side of the head, it is possible that migraine headaches affect both sides.
Migraine headaches are also much more debilitating than other headaches. In fact, the World Health Organization ranks migraines as one of the top 10 diseases with the most disabilities. The intense pain people with migraines feel can make everyday tasks extremely difficult.
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Migraines are often experienced in phases: the prodome phase, followed by the aura phase, the headache phase and finally the postdromal phase.
- Prodome phase The phase, also known as the pre-headache phase, is characterized by the onset of painless symptoms that occur hours or days before the onset of the migraine. These symptoms include mood swings, constipation, frequent yawns, neck stiffness, and unusual cravings.
- Aura phase refers to sensory disturbances that occur just before or during a migraine. These disorders can affect speech, vision, or touch. However, not all migraineurs experience this phase. Some examples of auras are numbness in the arm, slurred speech, and blurred vision.
- Headache phase refers to the phase in which the headache is felt. The pain can be moderate to debilitating and may be aggravated by physical activity, smell, light, or sound.
- Postdromal phase is the final stage of the migraine when the pain subsides. During this phase, migraineurs can feel uncomfortable and exhausted.
What causes migraines?
Although the causes of headaches are usually easy to trace, migraines are more “triggers” than causes. If you have migraines you may find that there are some triggers associated with their occurrence. These triggers vary from person to person and include:
- Family history and genetics. Scientists have discovered a genetic mutation that is common in people with the most typical form of migraines. Children with one parent who has migraines have a 50% chance of developing migraines, and in families with two parents who have migraines, that risk increases to 75%.
- Allergies. In some people, allergies are a known trigger because they cause irritation and inflammation in the body, and inflammation of the blood vessels is associated with migraines.
- Environment. In many cases, migraines are triggered by environmental factors such as weather changes, certain foods, stress, certain smells, and lack of sleep.
- Gender and hormones. Migraines are three times more likely to occur in women than in men. Migraines affect over 30% of women worldwide at some point in their life. This is mainly related to the menstrual cycles and the associated fluctuations in hormone levels.
Most people who have headaches are relieved by taking over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen. Since headaches are most often stress-related, reducing stress can also help relieve symptoms and reduce the risk of future headaches. Such therapies include massage, meditation, and heat therapy (applying warm compresses or warm showers).
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Prevention is usually the best form of treatment for migraines. For this reason, it is important for migraineurs to identify the triggers that are unique to them. This can be accomplished by keeping a “migraine diary” to track onset patterns, identify triggers, record when the headache occurred, what you did before and during, and how long the symptoms lasted.
Individuals suffering from severe headaches and debilitating, persistent symptoms are strongly advised to seek professional medical treatment.
Doctors may recommend changing your diet and taking steps to reduce stress. Other lifestyle changes such as exercising regularly, improving sleeping habits, and practicing meditation and other relaxation techniques can also help.
In cases where over-the-counter drugs are not effective, doctors may recommend prescription drugs on a case-by-case basis. These include blood pressure medications such as beta blockers, antidepressants, and anti-seizure medications. Botulinum toxin A injections (commonly known as botox) have also been shown to be helpful with migraine sufferers.
Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health practitioner and currently serves as Head of Content at the World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH].
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