The Difference Between Headaches and Migraines | The Daily Dose

Understanding The Difference Between Headaches and Types of Migraines

May 14, 2020 5 min read

Woman with a migraine lying on the couch

Studies show that more than 9 in 10 adults will experience a headache sometime in their life. In fact, headaches are the most popular reason cited for missed days of work or school(1).

But what’s the difference between a headache and a migraine? The primary differences between the two involve other symptoms. Migraines, for example, can include symptoms such as auras, sensitivity to light and nausea while headaches may not(1).

Headaches and migraines can also be symptoms of other underlying issues, so understanding which one is which can help identify the right treatments and get you feeling better, faster.

What is a Headache?

The uncomfortable symptoms linked with headaches are actually caused by blood vessels and nerves inside and outside the head, sending pain signals to the brain(1). Our brains cannot actually feel pain. What we feel as pain is the brain interpreting signals sent from the body’s pain-sensitive nerve endings. These signals are then sent to the brain’s “relay station” for feeling pain, which signals us that something is not right(1).

Some headaches can occur only once or twice a year and last for a few minutes each time. Others can be persistent throughout weeks or months. They can occur in both adults and children alike and can be triggered by various factors such as weather changes, irregular eating and sleep, dehydration and certain foods and drinks(1).

Foods or ingredients that can trigger headaches include(1):

  • Aspartame (commonly found in sweeteners and diet drinks to replace sugar)
  • Caffeine (or caffeine withdrawal)
  • Alcohol
  • Chocolate
  • Aged cheeses
  • Monosodium glutamate (also known as MSG and commonly added to Chinese food, canned vegetables, soups and processed meats)
  • Some fruits and nuts
  • Fermented or pickled goods
  • Yeast
  • Cured or processed meats

Types of Headaches

Ice Pick Headachesfeel just how they sound. They tend to come on suddenly, creating sharp pain in 5-30 second bursts. These headaches occur in the trigeminal nerve, which is on the side of your head, away from the eye and above your ear(2).

Cluster Headachescause a severe sensation around and above the eyes, temples and sometimes the back of the head, which can also cause symptoms such as swollen eyes or a running nose. They come in waves or clusters and are followed by relief(2).

Paroxysmal hemicrania is a rare form of headache that usually begins in adulthood and can commonly be mistaken for the cluster headache. The pain can occur anywhere from 5 to 40 times a day and feel like severe throbbing on the side of the face and around the eyes. Certain head movements, external pressure on the neck and alcohol use can trigger these types of headaches(1).

Cervicogenic headacheactually starts in the neck or spine which can mistakenly feel like a pain in the back of the head. This headache is usually treated with physical therapy and medication(2).

Sinus headachescan often be confused with chronic migraines. The difference is that sinus headaches include symptoms of sinus infection such as fever, running nose, congestion and pressure near the eyes(2). Treating sinus infections can help relieve this type of headache.

What is a Migraine?

About 12 percent of the U.S. population experiences migraine attacks(1). They are usually accompanied by throbbing and pulsating pain, which is caused by activated nerve fibers in the wall of the brain’s blood vessels traveling down the meninges—the membrane that surrounds the brain and spinal cord(1). Although most migraines can start as headaches some, like abdominal migraines, may not include a headache at all(1).

Migraine can be triggered by various environmental factors such as a change in weather, strong smells, stress, noise, lack of sleep, anxiety, motion sickness and more. Women often experience migraines due to changes in hormones during their menstrual cycle, pregnancy or as a side effect of contraceptives(1).

Types of Migraines

Hemiplegic Migrainescan sometimes feel as intense as a stroke. This type of migraine can cause people to feel weakness on one side of the body and often see an aura. Symptoms can last only a few hours or several days and do not always include severe head pain. Sometimes, although rare, these migraines can occur as part of a genetic disorder called Familial Hemiplegic Migraine (FHM). The disorder is caused by a series of genetic mutations that make the brain more sensitive and release higher levels of glutamate which can cause these migraine symptoms(1).

Retinal Migrainescause temporary loss of vision in one eye. This can last for just a few seconds or months, but does not create permanent damage to sight. There is minimal research about this type of migraine but it could indicate an underlying condition, so consult your doctor if you think you’re having one of these migraines(1).

Chronic Migraines can feel like a headache and last anywhere from 15 days to a month. Symptoms can vary on a daily basis and feel like a cluster headache or sinus headache if the pain is less severe. People with chronic migraines tend to reach for acute headache pain medication, which can sometimes worsen symptoms, so it’s best to consult your doctor if you are experiencing chronic migraine symptoms(1).

The symptoms of a migraine attack usually come in waves and can have all or some of the following:

  • Premonitory symptoms include food cravings, mood shifts, increased fatigue, fluid retention or increased urination. These symptoms can occur up to 24 hours before the onset of a migraine.
  • Auras are flashing or bright lights resembling a heatwave that some people will see during the migraine. Some people may not see an aura and instead will experience muscle weakness or the feeling of being touched or grabbed.
  • Headaches can start gradually and intensify during a migraine, though it is possible to have a migraine without a headache at all.
  • Postdrome is an exhausting or confused feeling following the headache or migraine. This can last up to 24 hours before full recovery(1).


In order to receive the right treatment, it is important to understand the difference between a headache and migraine.

For both, it is important to minimize stress and related symptoms whenever possible. Getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy diet with minimal food triggers can also help you gain control over your pain. Small amounts of caffeine can help minimize headaches as well, but should be monitored closely as too much caffeine can also trigger headaches due to dehydration(1).

For a migraine, napping or resting in a quiet room with minimal light can help alleviate symptoms.Magnesium Bisglycinate Chelate can help alleviate migraine pain and reduce migraine frequency, as studies show a direct correlation between magnesium deficiencies and migraine(1).

In Summary

Head pain can occur on its own or as a symptom of another disease or condition. Pay attention to your symptoms as they can help signal where the pain is coming from so you can start preventative treatment. If the pain becomes consistent or severe, consult your doctor.

Regina Kaza - Contributing Writer, Physician's Choice

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