What is the Difference Between a Headache & a Migraine?

Mar 14, 2022

Headaches and migraines are often confused for one another, but the two conditions have distinct characteristics that differentiate them. Headaches are a common occurrence throughout the world. In fact, headaches are experienced every year by up to 75% of people worldwide. Headaches can be caused by underlying illnesses or brought about by triggers like lifestyle or stress. 

Migraines are experienced by 39 million Americans and are the top 10 list for the most debilitating conditions by the World Health Organization. Treatment for migraines can be difficult and to get the best results needs to be completed right at the onset of symptoms. Preventing migraines from occurring by understanding triggers can help reduce migraine frequency and occurrence. 

What is a Headache

Headaches are characterized by unpleasant pain in the head that can cause pressure and aching. The pain can range in severity and can last anywhere from just minutes to hours or days. Pain associated with headaches can affect both sides of the head.

The reason why headaches affect so many people worldwide may be due to lifestyle changes like the increased use of technology, bad posture, stress, diet, and lack of physical activity. Headaches can negatively impact concentration, attention, and motivation which can lead to lifestyle compromises. Lifestyle compromises can include reducing social interactions, absence from work, and decreasing productivity at work which can cause consequences. 

Types of Headaches

Headaches are generally classified into two categories either a primary headache or secondary headache based on their causes. Primary headaches are not associated with underlying issues and can be caused by the overactivity of pain-sensitive structures in the brain. Secondary headaches are a result of an underlying disease or condition that can affect the pain-sensitive structures in the brain. 

Tension headaches are examples of primary headaches. Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and occur often because of stress or muscle tension. The pain comes on gradually and is often dull on both sides of the head. 

Sinus Headaches are examples of secondary headaches and are often seen during allergy seasons or during a sinus infection. Sinus headaches occur due to sinus passages behind the eyes, nose, cheeks, and forehead being congested. Sinus issues can cause pressure and pain on either or both sides of the head.  

What is a Migraine? 

Migraines are a primary headache disorder that is not connected with any other illness or trauma. The symptoms of a migraine can vary based on the type of migraine experienced, but it is believed that certain triggers can cause the body to react with intense pain and other symptoms. 

One theory about migraines is that the body reacts with migraine pain due to waves of activity by groups of excitable brain cells that trigger chemicals like estrogen and serotonin to narrow blood vessels. Serotonin levels can affect men and women, while estrogen levels affect women only. 

Migraine Phases

Migraines may occur during four different phases but not every type of migraine will go through each phase. 

4 different phases of migraines include: 

  • Prodrome Phase – first stage of migraine commonly associated with symptoms of nausea, confusion, sensitivity to light or odor, speech difficulties, sleepiness, or insomnia
  • Aura Phase – visual disturbances, temporary blindness in one eye, dizziness, neck pain, changes in sense of smell or taste, and numbing or tingling sensations. This phase may last from 10 minutes to hours. 
  • Headache “Attack” Phase – stage where the migraine is most intense and can last from 4 to 72 hours. The pain can be localized to one side of the head, throbbing or pulsing, and vary in severity. 
  • Postdrome Phase – depression, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and euphoria may occur after the headache phase has passed for up to 24 hours. 

Migraine Types

Several types of migraines can occur and each has its own set of characteristics that differentiate them. 

Most common types of migraines are: 

  • Migraine with aura – an aura phase occurs before the onset of headaches, nausea, and other symptoms. 
  • Migraine without aura – “common migraine” that has symptoms like headache, light and sound sensitivity, nausea, and other symptoms without the presence of an aura phase
  • Silent migraine – aura symptoms occur without the head pain typically associated with migraines
  • Hemiplegic migraine – temporary paralysis on one side of the body that can commonly cause loss of sensation, dizziness, and affects vision
  • Migraine with brainstem aura – vertigo, slurred speech, double vision, and loss of balance occurs before the headache occurs. Pain during the headache can be localized to the back of the head and can cause difficulties with speech, vomiting, or ringing in the ears.  

Migraine Triggers

Women are three times more likely to experience a migraine than men. Migraines can be linked to menstrual cycles and the hormone estrogen, which may be why women are more likely to experience this type of headache. Evidence suggests that there is an increased risk for migraines if a family member also experiences them. 

Common triggers include: 

  • Alcohol use
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
  • Bright lights
  • Strong smells
  • Loud noises 
  • Stress
  • Excessive medication use
  • Hormones 
  • Diet
  • Dehydration 

Treating Headaches

Headaches can often be treated with over-the-counter pain medication and being aware of what triggered the headache. Primary headaches can be triggered by stress, lack of sleep, and much more. By avoiding these triggers, headaches can lessen or even disappear.  

Secondary headaches are a symptom of a greater illness. Discovering what is causing the headache and treating that condition can produce great results of the underlying disorder and result in no more headaches. 

Treating Migraines

Migraine treatment is aimed at reducing symptoms and preventing additional migraine attacks from occurring in the future. Professional medical help is recommended for migraine suffers because migraines can become debilitating and can affect daily life. 

Prevention

To prevent migraines from occurring, identify particular triggers for these debilitating headaches. Keeping a migraine diary may help identify what triggers may be. Take note of what drinks and food have been consumed throughout the day of the migraine. Additional notes can be taken about the duration and quality of sleep.  

Medication

Medication can be used as a preventative for migraines or to treat migraines right at the onset. Preventative medications are considered effective if they help reduce migraines by 50% within three months of starting medication. However, typical preventative prescriptions only are effective 50% of the time

Medication to treat migraines once they have begun is more likely to be effective at the start of migraine symptoms. Efficacy varies based on the length of migraine and severity. Medications taken after a migraine has occurred lose efficacy if taken during the later phases of a migraine. 

TMS

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) is a non-invasive and medication-free treatment for migraines along with many other conditions. During TMS treatment an electromagnetic coil is placed on the top of the head and uses magnetic frequencies to target certain areas of the brain to help relieve migraine symptoms. To treat migraines, TMS focuses on suppressing cortical excitability which is often hyperactive during a migraine.  

Get Help with Migraines & Headaches

Migraines and headaches often go undiagnosed and untreated, but symptom relief can be found with proper treatment. After understanding what triggers a migraine or headache, triggers can be avoided and can result in a reduction of symptoms. Medications may not be an effective form of treatment because of the urgency to take the medication right at the onset of symptoms.

TMS can be an effective treatment for migraines and headaches and is able to do so without the use of medications. If you or a loved one are struggling with migraines and headaches, contact Brain Center TMS today. Our team can help answer any questions you may have and give you a better understanding of our program. 

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