Any pressure or pain you feel in your head can be distressing and even affect your activities. Knowing whether you are feeling a migraine or headache can help you get appropriate treatment quickly and prevent future attacks. Migraines and headaches are both classified as headache disorders and affect up to half of the global population at least once a year.
A migraine is a headache disorder that produces intense, debilitating pain, among other symptoms. People with migraines often experience recurring attacks. A headache is a migraine symptom, but some migraine sufferers experience no head pain. Migraine pains vary in severity and typically affect only one side of the head. Some migraines may produce aura – premonitory symptoms that occur before the actual migraine attack.
Migraine attacks can be triggered by stress, hunger, alcohol use, mood swings, and hormonal changes. Women are more likely to experience migraines than men. Migraines also run in families, and people with mood disorders like depression and anxiety report higher cases of migraine attacks.
Top 5 Signs of A Migraine
Here are the top signs the pain you are feeling in your head is a migraine and not a headache:
The presence of aura about five minutes to one hour before or during the attack is one of the most common migraine signs. Auras can be visual, motor, or sensory, and some individuals may experience auras without any migraine pain or headache.
Visual auras include:
- Blurred vision
- Flashing or flickering lights
- Blind spots that expand over time
- Zig-zagging lines
Motor auras affect your ability to communicate or think, and they include:
- Difficulty speaking or writing
- Slurred, jumbled or disordered speech
- Inability to think clearly
- Difficulty understanding what another person is saying
Sensory auras can cause a tingling pins-and-needles sensation or numbness, usually from one side of the body, moving from the arms and radiating toward the face.
Pulsating Pain on One or Both Sides of the Head
The quality of pain is another way of distinguishing migraines from headaches. A throbbing, pulsating pain usually on one side of the head is a classic pointer to a migraine. Half of all patients with migraine report having throbbing pain on one side of their head.
Nausea or Vomiting
A migraine is a neurological condition, and some types of migraines come with nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms like vertigo and loss of balance. A mail survey of people with migraine showed that 73% of them had nausea, while 29% reported vomiting. People with migraine-related nausea also experience more excruciating pain than those who do not experience that symptom.
Inability to Tolerate Light, Sound, and Some Smells
If the throbbing pain in your head worsens when you are exposed to light, noises, or smells, then you may be having a migraine attack. People with migraines seek refuge in dark, quiet places until the episode passes. Some odors can also trigger a migraine attack in someone with no symptoms.
Hangover-like symptoms post-headache can be a sign of migraines. People with migraines report dizziness, fatigue, inability to focus, lightheadedness, and feeling drained after an episode.
Having one or more of these signs does not necessarily mean you have a migraine. Only a doctor can make a definitive migraine diagnosis, usually after taking your medical history and performing a physical examination.
How to Treat Migraine
Treatment of migraines involves over-the-counter and prescription medications for relieving symptoms and lifestyle changes to prevent attacks.
OTC drugs for migraine include pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen. Prescription medicines for migraines include beta-blockers (propranolol, atenolol), triptans (almotriptan, sumatriptan/naproxen), and ergot alkaloids (ergotamine).
Doctors may also prescribe antidepressants and anti-seizure drugs like valproate and topiramax for migraine prevention. It is essential to follow the prescriber’s recommended dosage when using these migraine medications to avoid medication-overuse headaches.
Lifestyle changes that can prevent or reduce the frequency of migraine attacks include:
- Regular exercises
- Dietary changes that eliminate triggers
- Stress management
- Practicing meditation, mindfulness, and other relaxation techniques
- Keeping a migraine diary to keep track of the attacks and to observe patterns and triggers
Headaches are mild to severe pains in the head that cause aches and pressure, usually on both sides. A headache can occur on your temples, forehead, and behind the neck. There are two main types of headaches – primary and secondary.
Primary headaches are independent conditions causing aches and pains in the head. They are not caused by any underlying disorder. Types of primary headaches include:
Tension headaches are the most common type of headaches, and they feel like a band of intense pressure around the head or a dull ache or pressure. Tightening muscles in the neck and scalp, poor posture, hunger, insomnia, and stress are among the causes of tension headaches. Tension headaches can last for minutes to several days and are usually recurrent.
Cluster headaches cause intense pain on one side of the head and behind the eyes. They come in clusters – intermittent cycles of attacks.
Hemicranias are headaches that fluctuate in severity affect the same side of the head, and the attacks could be cyclical or chronic. People with hemicranias also experience nausea, vomiting, watery eyes, congestion, and swollen eyelids.
Secondary headaches are caused by underlying medical conditions that affect the nervous system. Some conditions that can trigger headaches include:
- Brain tumors
- Sleep disorders
- Head trauma
- Inflammatory conditions
- Medication withdrawal
How to Treat Headaches
Secondary headaches will go away on their own if you address the underlying medical condition. Primary headaches respond to OTC pain relievers like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen. Stress is a major factor for headaches, so relaxation techniques like massage, meditation, and heat therapy can relieve symptoms and reduce the risk of future attacks.
We all experience headaches from time to time, ranging from mild inconveniences to disabling situations. Differentiating a migraine from a headache can be tricky, and only a professional can make a definitive diagnosis. The signs discussed above may tell whether you have a migraine or headache, so you can quickly get appropriate treatment.