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Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference

Headaches are a common occurrence for just about everyone. Typically, a headache goes away on its own. However, when headaches start to affect your quality of life, it’s time to talk to an expert.

Being able to distinguish between migraines and headaches equates to faster, more effective relief. Below, Flo covers the ins and outs of migraines vs. headaches, including effective treatment and management.

What is a headache?

Headaches are a widespread, well-documented ailment. The Egyptians recorded headaches as far back as 1200 B.C.

Since then, medical researchers have learned a great deal about this phenomenon. Headache pain is often the result of pressure in the brain, and, according to the World Health Organization, nearly 50 percent of adults get headaches. 

Headaches are a common occurrence for just about everyone. Typically, a headache goes away on its own.

The degree of pain caused by headaches ranges from mild to severe and is typically felt on both sides of the head. Pain in the forehead, temples, and back of your neck may also occur. 

Headaches fall into one of two categories. Primary headaches are not connected to any underlying disease, injury, or condition. They include migraine, cluster, and tension headaches. 

By contrast, secondary headaches are linked to an underlying condition, such as a brain tumor, medication overuse, or meningitis. Triggers range from dehydration and caffeine withdrawal to injury and heart disease. 

Women occasionally experience premenstrual headaches while on their period. Moreover, hormonal fluctuations prior to menopause can also cause headaches. In this case, they’ll likely disappear once you’ve entered menopause.

Symptoms of a headache

These are the most common symptoms of headache:

  • Dull, aching pain
  • Tightness, pressure, and pain on both sides of your head
  • Sore temples
  • Pain behind your eyes
  • Neck and shoulder tightness
  • Scalp tenderness 
  • Restlessness and irritability

Types of headaches

Doctors have classified over 150 diagnosable types of headaches (including sinus, tension, and cluster), with many potential causes, symptoms, and treatments. 


The sinuses are a system of cavities located behind your forehead, nose, and upper cheeks. Sinus inflammation ‒ due to allergic reaction or infection ‒ leads to swelling, mucus production, and blockage.  


Up to 90 percent of all headaches fall under the category of tension headaches, which feel like a tight band squeezing your head. Triggers include stress, dehydration, anxiety, and depression. 


Cluster headaches produce a burning, stabbing sensation behind one eye. They’ve been known to cause red-eye, constricted pupils, and drooping eyelids. As the name suggests, they present themselves in a cluster, or a period lasting anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. Remission periods, in which no headaches occur, will follow.

What is a migraine?

Migraines are recurring, long-lasting headaches that feel like a vise around your skull. Some report throbbing, pulsing sensations, usually on one side of the head. Lasting between four hours and three days, migraine pain is severe enough to interfere with daily activities. Roughly 1 in 7 people worldwide have experienced migraines.

“Migraines are recurring, long-lasting headaches that feel like a vise around your skull. Some report throbbing, pulsing sensations, usually on one side of the head.”

One-third of migraine sufferers notice an aura before the onset of a migraine. From 5 to 60 minutes in length, these visual and sensory disturbances include partial vision loss or seeing zigzagging lines and flickering lights or spots.

Left untreated, a migraine episode may continue for up to 72 hours. Frequency depends on the individual and can crop up sporadically or a few times a month. The primary causes have yet to be fully understood; however, environmental factors and genetics both play a role.

Symptoms of migraine headache

When it comes to migraines vs. headaches, symptoms of the former are generally more intense and could include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme sensitivity to light and sound
  • Visual disturbances
  • Tingling on one side of the face 
  • Tingling in one arm or leg
  • Difficulty speaking

How to tell the difference between a headache and a migraine

Headaches and migraines differ in length, intensity, region, and symptoms. Here are a few ways to distinguish tension headache vs. migraine pain. 

With regards to intensity, migraines are generally worse. Regular headaches tend to be mild or moderate, while migraine pain is moderate to severe. Migraine sufferers have trouble performing daily tasks and might even require an ER visit.  

Furthermore, while headaches are typically felt on both sides of your head, migraines will be confined to one side or the other. 

“Headaches and migraines differ in length, intensity, region, and symptoms.”

The symptoms of migraines vs. headaches also run the gamut. Whereas headaches produce a pressing or tightening sensation, migraines produce a pulsing, throbbing sensation. Additionally, migraine pain is exacerbated by walking, climbing stairs, and exercising.

Headache treatment

Most headaches can be treated with minor lifestyle changes and over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory drugs that reduce cranial swelling. Acupuncture and relaxing activities like yoga or meditation have also proven beneficial. 

However, if headaches become a chronic condition, and medication isn’t providing relief, be sure to consult your doctor.

Migraine treatment

Though more stubborn than headaches, migraines sometimes respond to certain medications when combined with lifestyle changes.  

Doctors recommend keeping a diary to track meals, sleep habits, weather conditions, and other daily activities to pinpoint the problem’s source. Dietary changes, in the way of eliminating caffeine and alcohol, are similarly encouraged. 

“If migraines become increasingly frequent and begin to interfere with daily life, be sure to consult your doctor.”

Over-the-counter medications designed specifically for migraines are one treatment option. As a rule, they’re most effective when taken at the initial signs of a migraine. This allows enough time for absorption into your bloodstream. Stronger options include anti-nausea remedies and triptans. 

If migraines become increasingly frequent and begin to interfere with daily life, be sure to consult your doctor.