Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference

If you feel pressure or pain in any area of the head, you are dealing with a headache. Headaches are one of the most common medical issues that people deal with, and just about everyone has had at least one. In fact, over 95% of people will experience at least one during their lifetime. Many people, however, only experience the milder kind or have only had headaches as a result of some other problem, like a head cold or an injury that causes headaches after a car accident.

On the other hand, some people experience much more frequent bouts of headache, or worse, they experience migraine, which is a kind of headache that causes severe pain. It is important to know the difference because early detection of a migraine can help with early intervention, which is the most effective way to nip a burgeoning migraine in the bud. There are a few important differences between headaches and migraine.


Headaches are unpleasant and can put a stormcloud over your day, but usually, they are not very serious. They are also one of the most frequently occurring health problems in the world so more than half of all adults in the world aged 18 to 65 report having experienced a headache within the last year. Headaches are defined as either primary or secondary. Primary headaches, where the headache is the main problem, make up 98% of all reported cases of headache. Secondary headaches, on the other hand, require more attention and concern because they are a result of some other problem occurring within the body.

Tension Headache

Tension headaches are the most common kind of primary headache condition, especially in adults. 78% of adults will experience at least one during their lifetime, with up to 37% reporting experiencing a tension headache several times a month and 10% experiencing them weekly. Tension headaches usually begin in your neck and shoulders. Many patients report a feeling like wearing a tight elastic band around their heads. It can be differentiated from migraine in that tension headache does not worsen with physical exertion and does not cause nausea and vomiting. The most commonly reported causes for tension headaches are lack of sleep, stress, and poor eating schedules. Some women also report being more vulnerable to tension headaches when they are menstruating.

Sinus Headache

Another primary headache condition is called a sinus headache. The inflammation of the sinuses can cause sinusitis. Your sinuses are the cavities in your face near your nose and eyes. Inflammation can make the sinuses swell, causing pressure and pain, causing the condition called sinusitis. (Interestingly, some research suggests that sinus headaches are actually very rare but commonly misdiagnosed, and many cases of sinus headaches are actually migraines.) 

The pressure and pain will be focused mostly in the area above the brows, in the cheeks below the eyes, or in the nose. You may also feel pressure along your gums that you can feel when you bite down.

Cluster Headache

This form of primary headache is much rarer than tension-type headaches, affecting only 0.1% of the population. These brief, intense headaches can be so painful that they wake you from a deep sleep and happen strictly on one side of the head (unilateral). 

Cluster periods, which are periods of weeks or months when headaches occur more frequently, are a common characteristic in people who experience this form of headache. An episode of cluster headache can last anywhere from fifteen minutes to three hours. You may experience sweating and agitation.

Cluster headaches tend to happen more in young men, and 65% of people who report cluster headaches are smokers. Alcohol is a major trigger, so if you tend to have these forms of headaches, you should avoid alcohol.

Despite the intensity of the pain, cluster headaches are usually not serious and tend to happen episodically. That is, you are likely to experience periods where you have several cluster headaches, but you will also have periods of remission with no pain at all.

Thunderclap Headache

Thunderclap headaches, unlike the previously described headaches, are a secondary headache. These intense headaches have a very fast onset, and their peak hits within a minute. They are often accompanied by nausea and vomiting, pain so severe that it causes unconsciousness, and significant sensitivity to light (also known as photophobia). Thunderclap headaches can be a sign of subarachnoid hemorrhage, or bleeding in the brain. If you experience a thunderclap headache, seek medical care immediately. Symptoms include:

Other Forms of Headache

There are other headaches that occur more rarely.

  • Ice pick headaches cause sudden and sharp pain that lasts no more than a few seconds. They aren’t serious and usually first occur between the ages of 45 and 50.
  • Hormone headaches result from spikes in hormones before or during menstruation. Hormone therapy and menopause can also cause hormone headaches.
  • Caffeine headaches are a frequent bane of coffee drinkers, and they occur due to withdrawal.
  • Exertion headaches occur due to intense physical exertion.
  • Hangover: Dehydration and overconsumption of alcohol cause hangover headaches.

There are many, many reasons for having headaches, and they can occur as a result of many different circumstances. A headache is the body’s way of telling you that something is wrong – too much stress, too much screen time, not enough water, the list goes on. While many headaches are not serious, if you are experiencing a lot of them, you should see a doctor to rule out any possible underlying conditions.

Treating Headaches

The best course of action for headache relief will depend on the nature of your headache. For example, a hangover will often subside with water, time, and food. The majority of headaches can be treated with over-the-counter painkillers, especially NSAIDs like aspirin, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen.


Migraines are more than painful headaches. They are always accompanied by other symptoms and have an effect on the entire body. The symptoms depend on the person experiencing the headache and sometimes also the circumstances causing the migraine in the first place. Migraine is a chronic health problem for many that can cause significant issues with day-to-day living. Of the people who have experienced headaches – nearly everyone! – 30% of adults also experience migraines, adding up to 1 billion people worldwide, enough to make migraines the third most common medical condition in the world.

Migraine Symptoms

Migraine symptoms occur in phases. These phases can last over a period of hours, or they can last for days.


The migraine begins in the prodrome phase. It occurs one to two days before a migraine attack. Symptoms are subtle but people with a chronic migraine disorder – defined as experiencing 15 or more headache days each month – learn to identify the signs early enough that they can intervene in the hope of avoiding the rest of the phases coming to pass. During the prodrome phase, you may experience:

  • Decreased Ability to Focus or Pay Attention
  • Increased Irritability and Other Changes in Mood, Including Euphoria
  • Feelings of Depression
  • Reading or Speaking Difficulties
  • Frequent Yawning
  • Sleep Disturbances
  • Fatigue
  • Sensitivity to Light and Sound
  • Nausea
  • Stiff Muscles
  • Frequent Urination
  • Gastrointestinal Distress
  • Specific Food Cravings

Proper headache hygiene (described below) can help you stop the migraine before it progresses, as long as you take action quickly and early.


This is not a necessary phase in the migraine progression, and not all people experience it, or they may experience it with only some cases of migraine. It may occur before or during the actual attack phase. The aura can last anywhere from five minutes to an hour. It is usually characterized as a visual problem, but it has other forms as well. Aura is not always painful, and in fact, there may be no pain at all. The aura usually begins gradually and then builds. If you are experiencing the aura phase, you may notice the following:

  • Visual hallucinations – some people describe zig-zags at the edges of their vision
  • Temporary vision loss
  • A tingling sensation on the skin
  • Ringing in your ear (tinnitus)
  • Speech changes
  • Noticeable change in the ability to smell or taste


The attack phase is the one most people are familiar with because it is the one that is most difficult to function during. The attack can be relatively short, lasting only a few hours, or it can last days. You will notice pain that begins on one side and then spreads to the other. Like the rest of the other phases, there are usually accompanying symptoms that di

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, smell, and taste
  • A loss of appetite
  • Temperature changes, including hot flashes and chills
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulties with speech and reading
  • Dizziness and blurred vision
  • Tender scalp
  • Rarely, diarrhea or fever


After the pain subsides, there is still one more phase in the migraine progression. The toll the migraine takes on your body leaves behind a sense of fatigue. It is called a “migraine hangover” by those who experience it, and it can last hours or days. During the postdrome, you may be extremely exhausted. You may notice a lack of focus and increased confusion. You may also feel a sense of euphoria simply because the pain has gone. Rest continues to be important in this phase, and attempting to go back to normal functioning too soon during this phase can cause the attack to return.

Migraine Triggers

Migraine headaches can happen to anyone, though some people will only experience one in their life, while others experience them chronically throughout their lives. There are a few factors that make you more likely to suffer migraines.

  • Gender: Women make up three times as many migraine patients as men.
  • Genetics: If you have a close relative who experiences migraines, you are much more likely to experience them as well. 80% of people with migraine report this.
  • Age: People in their thirties tend to have the most migraines, and migraines tend to taper off as you age.
  • Sleep changes: Too little, too much, or disturbed sleep can cause migraines.
  • Weather changes: Barometric pressure and other changes due to weather can trigger a migraine.
  • Stress level: Those who experience prolonged periods of intense stress, such as people in professions like doctors or teachers, are much more likely to experience migraines.
  • Smoking: Smokers report significantly more vulnerability to migraine headaches than non-smokers.

Migraine Treatment

When treating a migraine at home, start small by using an over-the-counter medication. Ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin are all good choices, and many medications are combined with caffeine and other chemicals that have a known impact on migraines. However, medication overuse headaches are another problem, and if you find that you require painkillers too often, you will increase the frequency of your headaches and potentially the intensity of the migraines as well. Treatment may need more intensive medical support if you find that you need to use a painkiller more than twice a week.

Some migraine treatments are preventative, and others are abortive, meaning that their goal is to stop a migraine that is already existing. Common abortive treatments include stronger painkillers as well as medication for dealing with secondary symptoms, such as nausea. Applying a cold compress to your head and resting in a dark, quiet room are also good steps to take.

Headache Hygiene

The most effective treatment against migraines is preventative measures. Lifestyle changes can go a long way towards making a difference in the frequency and intensity of your migraine episodes. These preventative measures are known to the medical community as headache hygiene. For those prone to headaches, practicing good headache hygiene can prevent migraines from occurring.

  • Avoid sleep deprivation by making sure you go to bed at the same time every day and wake up around the same time each day. You should also avoid oversleeping.
  • Forgetting to eat, or eating at inconsistent times, can be major triggers for migraines. Eat three balanced meals per day, or make sure to eat a balanced snack every few hours, depending on what works best for you.
  • At least 30 minutes of moderate exercise at least three times a week can help you prevent headaches.
  • Drinking water can help with headaches as well. Some doctors recommend half an ounce for each pound you weigh.
  • Use caffeine and alcohol in moderation. If you are a frequent coffee drinker, be careful about missing a day because withdrawal can trigger headaches.
  • Practice effective stress relief strategies. The more stress you carry in your body, the more likely you are to develop a headache.