Migraine medication.
Asger Hee Stjernholm, MSc

Do You Have a Headache or a Migraine? 7 Ways to Know the Difference

If you’ve suffered a migraine attack in the past, you’ll know the pain and discomfort a migraine causes can leave you feeling way worse than even the most severe headache.

That being said, it’s not always easy to know whether you actually have a migraine or not. Your doctor will have to rely, to a large extent, on your description of the symptoms to make a diagnosis. After all, nobody else can feel what you are feeling.

That’s why, if you’re suffering with head pain, the first thing you need to do is to learn the difference yourself. Do you have a migraine, requiring specialized medication and treatment? Or is it “just” a really, really bad headache?
We’ve compiled this practical guide to help you decide what your symptoms mean, so that you can find the headache or migraine relief you need.

Understanding the ‘simple’ headache

A headache is not a diagnosis in itself. Rather, it’s a symptom — a sign of another underlying problem. If you have a headache, that pain in your head is a sign of something else, which may (or may not) be a migraine.

For example, a headache could be a sign of underlying stress or anxiety. This type of headache is known as a tension headache, and it’s caused by tension in the muscles of the neck. Tension headaches can cause intense pain, and for this reason it can be difficult to differentiate between a migraine and a tension headache.

But while the pain of a migraine headache is often focused on one side of the sufferer’s head, tension headaches usually cause pain all over the scalp.

Medication which relaxes muscles can help relieve tension headaches. But these treatments are unlikely to help with a migraine. Importantly, there are several other causes of headaches, some of which are potentially serious conditions that require urgent attention. So, if you get headaches which don’t respond to treatment or if you have an intense headache which is unlike anything you’ve experienced before, it is a good idea to seek medical advice quickly.

Migraine myth-busting

Unlike a headache, a migraine is a diagnosis. It’s a condition which can (but doesn’t always) cause headaches. It can also cause other symptoms, like nausea (feeling sick) or sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine with aura can also cause visual disturbances, such as seeing flashing lights or blind spots.

A migraine is a neurological condition, which means it arises in your body’s nervous system. We still don’t know exactly what causes migraines, but some people are able to identify triggers which can set them off. Migraine triggers vary from person to person and include things like bright lights, loud noises, hormonal changes and certain foods or food additives.

Because a headache and a migraine have different causes, they are likely to need different treatments. Some painkilling treatments designed for headaches will give migraine relief, if a headache is the main symptom of the migraine. But caution is needed — if pain-relieving medications are used frequently, to reduce the pain of migraine or tension headaches, symptoms can worsen due to what is known as ‘medication overuse headache’ or ‘rebound headache’. 

Many migraine sufferers need treatments other than pain killers. For example, they may need anti-emetics (medications which suppress vomiting and nausea) if a migraine makes them feel, or be, sick. Also, people who suffer from frequent migraines might need preventative treatments and could benefit from identifying and avoiding their specific migraine triggers.

7 ways to know the difference between a headache and a migraine

  1. Is the pain mostly on one side of your head? This is a feature of many migraines. If the pain is felt all over your head, you could have a tension headache. But if it’s more on one side, a migraine is possibly the cause.
  2. How intense is the pain and does it throb? Migraines often cause a very intense pain, so if the pain in your head is severe, you could have a migraine. Migraine headaches are often reported to cause a strong pounding, pulsating or throbbing pain. Less severe headache pain may be due to other causes.
  3. Can you identify any triggers which tend to set your headaches off? Migraines may be triggered by certain foods or smells, or by changes in hormonal activity (typically, for women, by menstrual cycles — often just before a period is due).
  4. Do you have other symptoms accompanying the headache? A migraine headache is usually accompanied by nausea, light and sound sensitivity. In the special case of migraine with aura you also experience visual and other sensory disturbances before the headache sets in.
  5. Does your headache occur in the form of attacks? If yes, then it is more likely to be migraine than for example tension headache, which usually takes the form of a constant headache which lasts for days or even weeks or months. In the rare case of chronic migraine the pain can be present for extended time spans, so make sure to get a final diagnosis from your doctor.
  6. Do other close members of your family suffer from migraines? Migraines can run in families, with some genetic predisposition having been suggested.
  7. Are you female? Statistically, women are three times more likely to suffer migraines than men. So, if you are a woman, a diagnosis of migraine is more likely. However, men do get migraines, and women can get migraines for lots of other reasons beyond gender.

Hopefully this guide has given you some confidence in telling the difference between a headache and a migraine. But, ultimately, if you are at all concerned about your symptoms, then go and see your doctor. If it is a regular headache, they may be able to help you alleviate stress or identify the root cause of your pain. If it is a migraine, then they can put you on the right course of treatment and coping mechanisms, so you can minimize the pain you’re in.

In case you already have been diagnosed with migraine and are still looking for the right treatment, you can take our quick test below to see if Rehaler would be a good option for you!

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Migraines can be a huge disruption to your life, no doubt about it. If you have recently been diagnosed with (or believe you may have) chronic migraine, you probably have a lot of questions about what is causing your migraines, what treatments are available, and what your long-term prognosis might be.

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