Migraines vs. Headaches: What's the difference? - Pfizer

If you’ve never experienced migraines, it’s difficult to think of how one might cause someone to be out of work. You may have even thought of the term migraine as a headache. If you’re one of billion of people around the world suffering from migraine headaches and migraine headaches, you know how crippling migraines could be. 1 The discomfort, nausea and sensitiveness to light and sound could make it impossible to work or take care of your family. This is why migraines are the 2nd leading reason for disabled. 2

Understanding the research behind migraines and headaches can aid in determining between them. It will show how advancements in the field of science are facilitating the development of drugs which could eventually offer people suffering from the condition some relief.

Migraines as opposed to. other types of headaches

Headaches are defined by discomfort and pain within the head. The pain could vary in intensity from moderate to extreme and can be felt as painful, pounding or stabbing. Many people experience a feeling of pressure or tightness.

A lot of headaches result from an infection or injury, or a different health issue. Meningitis, influenza, sinus infections that are viral and bacterial are all causes of headaches. Also, head injuries such as concussions. Dehydration and hunger can cause headaches.

However, a migraine is a neurovascular condition that may affect the whole human body. 3 Migraine symptoms aren’t limited just to your head. The function of the eyes, digestion nose, brain neck shoulder, neck may be affected. In many cases experiencing migraine, the initial indication of migraine is an aura of vision or visual change like blurred vision or flashing lights. They can also be blind spots or wavy patterns which are only visible to those suffering from migraine. The patient may be suffering from severe head pain or sensitivity to light and sound nausea or vomiting. The movement of the head can make symptoms worse. The symptoms can last for a day or more. Even after pain is gone people affected might feel tired and “off.” 4

“Although the precise reason for migraine isn’t been identified, it is evident that the pathophysiology behind migraine differs,” says Damian Largier, MD, Pfizer’s Vice Head of Global Medical Affairs – Migraine.

Common migraine triggers — events that happen, or experiences, which can trigger migraine-related symptoms. They can be caused by hormone shifts in stress, certain food items and weather. Although the triggers and experiences of migraine may differ between individuals, and in time, there appears to be common biochemical pathways that cause migraine as the doctor. Largier says.

A Changing Understanding of Migraines

Migraines have been aspect of human life for many years. Hippocrates actually identified migraine-related symptoms as early as 400 B.C. Yet their pathophysiology remains thoroughly understood. 5

Doctors and researchers have known for a long time that migraines are more prevalent among women who were deemed female at birth, and that migraines are seen to be prevalent through families. The hormonal link and genetic causes could are involved. 6

For many years, medical professionals believed that the discomfort and pain that migraine sufferers experience was due to the blood vessels contracting which was then followed by dilation. Ergotamine an anti-inflammatory drug which causes vasoconstriction, was first utilized for migraine treatment in the year 1925. 7

The 1950s 1960s and 1970s the migraine condition was still thought of as to be a vascular issue. 8 Desperate patients sought relief and doctors discovered that certain medications for blood pressure and anti-seizure and antidepressant medicines could help reduce migraine frequency, at the very least for certain patients. Even into the 1980s, the most effective treatment for migraine was medications that were designed for different purposes.

The first medication that was specifically designed for migraines, sumatriptan, was approved for use by doctors in Europe in the year 1991. 9 The medication was developed after scientists discovered that serotonin is a neurotransmitter that may play a significant role in the formation of migraine headaches. Sumatriptan can be found in the brain, and binds Serotonin receptors and triggers them inside the nervous system’s central was described for being among “the most significant breakthroughs in the field of headache medicine.” 10

Other treatments with triptan followed. While these drugs assisted many, others did not see any improvement.

The Connection Between CGRP and migraines

In 1982, researchers discovered an endocrine neuropeptide, dubbed the calcitonin gene-related protein (CGRP) and discovered could be linked with migraine. 11

“Scientists first realized that CGRP levels were elevated when a migraine attack occurred,” Dr. Largier states. “Then they realized that when patients received treatment like triptans or ergotamine during attacks, CGRP concentrations decreased for patients that responded treatments.”

At the beginning of 2000 researchers discovered that the administration of CGRP to patients could cause migraine-related symptoms. “That resulted in the realization that the blocking of CGRP could be beneficial to the treatment of migraine.” Dr. Largier describes.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first anti-CGRP migraine medicine in the year 2018. 12

Science-based advances lead to new Migraine Treatments

The advancement of understanding the underlying causes of migraine has been “the main reason” to the discovery of new drugs for migraines in the past 30 years Dr. Largier says.

However, despite massive scientific advances yet, there is a gap in medical need. The majority of medications used to treat and prevent migraines cause undesirable side effects. More than 90% of patients quit taking them within a calendar year. 13

Doctors and scientists continue to research migraine and research the possibility of anti-CGRP medicines.

“One advantage of a brand new class of medication that is coming to on the market, is there’s going to be a significant investment in clinical and basic research into migraine, as well as targeted targets are identified, and new therapies are being developed,” Dr. Largier declares.

In the next few years doctors are expected to be able to better understand the mechanisms of anti-CGRP treatments. The science may also help us determine which patients are most likely to benefit from certain treatments.

“We aren’t there yet to perfect the treatment for migraines,” Dr. Largier states. “There’s still the need to research different mechanisms of action as well as possibilities for innovative and new treatments.”


  1. Ashina, M., Katsarava, Z., Do, T., Buse, D., Pozo-Rosich, P., & Ozge, A. et al. Migraine: Epidemiology and Systems of care. The Lancet. 2021; 397(10283), 1485-1495. doi: 10.1016/s0140-6736(20)32160-7. Published on March 21 2021. The publication was accessed on June 20, 2022.
  2. Steiner, T., Stovner, L., Jensen, R., Uluduz, D., and Katsarava, Z. Migraine is ranked second in the leading causes of disability and is the most prevalent in women of a young age: results from GBD2019. The Journal Of Headache And Pain. 2020; 21(1). doi: 10.1186/s10194-020-01208-0. Published on December 2, 2020. The publication is available until June 20, 2022.
  3. Hoffmann, J., Baca, S., and Akerman, S. Neurovascular mechanisms behind migraine as well as cluster headache. Journal Of Cerebral Blood Flow &Amp; Metabolism. 2017; 39(4), 573-594. doi: 10.1177/0271678×17733655. The journal was published in April of 2017. Accessed on June 20, 2022.
  4. Hoffmann, J., Baca, S., and Akerman, S. Neurovascular mechanisms behind the migraine or cluster headache. Journal Of Cerebral Blood Flow &Amp; Metabolism. 2017; 39(4), 573-594. doi: 10.1177/0271678×17733655. Published April17, 2017. The publication was accessed on June 20, 2022.
  5. Headache from the beginning of time. Migraine & Headache Australia. https://headacheaustralia.org.au/what-is-headache/history-of-headache/. 20 June, 2022.
  6. Migraine. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://medlineplus.gov/migraine.html. Accessed on June 20, 2022.
  7. Tfelt-Hansen P. Tfelt-Hansen, P. Koehler, P. History of the use of Ergotamine and Dihydroergotamine in Migraine Starting in 1906 onward. Cephalalgia. 2008; 28(8), 877-886. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2982.2008.01578.x. The publication was published on August 29, 2008. Accessed on June 20, 2022.
  8. Solomon, S., Diamond, S., Mathew, N., Solomon, S., Diamond, S., Mathew N. Loder, E. American Headache Throughout the Decades from 1950 to 2008. Headache : The Journal of Head and Face Pain. 2008; 48(5), 671-677. https://headachejournal.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2008.01120.x . The journal was published in May of 2008. Accessed on June 20, 2022.
  9. Sumatriptan. National Library of Medicine National Center for Biotechnology Information. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Sumatriptan. The site was last visited on June 20, 2022.
  10. Humphrey, Patrick P.A. The development and discovery of triptans, a significant therapeutic breakthrough. It is the Headache Journal of Head and Face Pain. 2008; 48(5), 685-687. It was published in May of 2008. Accessed on June 20, 2022.
  11. Kee, Z., Kodji, X., and Brain, S. The Function in the role of Calcitonin Gene Related Peptide (CGRP) in Neurogenic Vasodilation as well as its Cardioprotective effects. Frontiers In Physiology. 2018, 9. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.01249. The publication was published on September 19, 2008. Accessed June 20, 2022.
  12. What do you need to know about latest Anti CGRP treatments for migraine. American Migraine Foundation. https://americanmigrainefoundation.org/resource-library/anti-cgrp-treatment-options/ Published May 25, 2018. Accessed on June 20, 2022.
  13. Hepp Z, Dodick DW, Varon SF, Gillard P, Hansen RN, Devine EB. The use of oral migraine-preventive medication in patients suffering from chronic migraine. Cephalalgia. 2015; 35(6):478-488. doi:10.1177/0333102414547138. The publication was made in May 2015. Accessed on June 20, 2022.