How to Know If It's a Migraine or Headache

Updated on April 13, 2018
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Kate holds a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree in biology from Sonoma State University in California and suffers from chronic vertigo.

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Medical Disclaimer

I'm not a doctor and this article is not meant to be taken as a diagnosis. Use the information found here to create a list of questions for your doctor. If you believe that you're experiencing a medical emergency please seek medical care immediately.

If you've ever experienced a headache more than once in your life, you know that not all headaches are created equal, and knowing the differences is key to treating each one properly. Read on to discover the difference between a migraine and other types of headaches.

Types of Headaches and What They Feel Like

Thunderclap Headache
Cluster Headache
Sinus Headache
Chiari Headache
A thunderclap headache is an intense one that comes about in a minute or less. It can result from a subarachnoid hemorrhage. This is a condition that necessitates immediate medical attention. It can also result from an aneurysm, a stroke, or another injury. This is a real medical emergency.
Cluster headaches are intense headaches that occur on only one side of the head. They come in clusters. This means that you will have cycles of the headaches followed by pain-free times.
Sinus headaches are many times mistaken for a migraine. They come along with some other symptoms. These may be fever, nasal congestion, cough, and pressure in the face. I deal with these and find that they come on when I have a respiratory virus or my seasonal allergies get out of control.
A Chiari headache comes from a birth defect called a Chiari malformation. This is where the skull puts pressure on the brain. This results in pain in the back of the head.
Here's what some non-migraine headaches feel like.

What a Migraine Feels Like

A migraine headache is an intense pain in the head. The best way to tell the difference between a normal headache and a migraine is to make note of the symptoms.

Symptoms of migraines can include:

  • Nausea
  • Pain behind one eye or ear
  • Pain in the temples
  • Seeing spots or flashing lights
  • Sensitivity to light or sound
  • Temporary vision loss
  • Vomiting

Migraine headaches also usually happen on only one side of the head. This is the number one indicator for me that I'm experiencing a migraine, along with, unfortunately, nausea and vomiting. It's possible, however, to have one on both sides of the head. You might find that a migraine headache consists of more of a “throbbing” pain.

Photosensitivity or "photophobia" is a common migraine symptom. When it happens, light becomes another trigger for pain and discomfort. When I'm having one I close up the curtains.
Photosensitivity or "photophobia" is a common migraine symptom. When it happens, light becomes another trigger for pain and discomfort. When I'm having one I close up the curtains. | Source

What Does a Migraine With or Without Aura Mean?

There are two different types of migraine, one is a migraine with aura and the other is a migraine without aura.

A migraine aura is a set of sensations that you may have prior to the headache. So basically, an aura is a warning sign that the migraine is coming, whereas a migraine without aura means that it comes on suddenly, without any warning signs.

These aura sensations will happen 10 to 30 minutes prior to the headache and, according to The Mayo Clinic can include:

  • Feeling less mentally alert or having trouble thinking
  • Seeing flashing lights or unusual lines
  • Feeling tingling or numbness in the face or hands
  • Having an unusual sense of smell, taste, or touch

Some people even experience symptoms a day or two prior to the attack. These symptoms are more subtle, but for some it can alert them that a bad migraine is on the horizon. These early onset symptoms of a migraine can include:

  • Constipation
  • Depression
  • Yawning
  • Irritability
  • Stiffness in the neck
  • Unusual cravings for food

Things That Can Trigger a Migraine

For many of us, there's certain things that can trigger a migraine. While these triggers aren't universal, common ones that many people have reported, include:

  • Anxiety
  • Contraceptives
  • Alcohol
  • Hormonal changes
  • Menopause

When Should You Worry About a Headache?

Headaches are common, most people experience them occasionally and the reason isn't usually serious. Even occasional migraines are considered normal. Some months I'll get one before my period and all I have to do is glance at the calendar to know the cause. But, according to WebMD, here are some things that indicate you should call your doctor or seek immediate medical care for a headache:

  1. A major change in the pattern of your headaches
  2. An unusually severe headache
  3. Pain that gets worse with coughing or movement
  4. Headaches that get steadily worse
  5. Changes in personality or mental function
  6. Headaches that come along with fever, stiff neck, confusion, decreased alertness or memory
  7. Neurological symptoms, such as visual disturbances, slurred speech, weakness, numbness, or seizures
  8. Headaches that come along with a painful red eye
  9. Headaches that come along with pain and tenderness near the temples
  10. Headaches after a blow to the head
  11. Headaches that get in the way of normal daily activities
  12. Headaches that occur abruptly
  13. Headaches in people with cancer or impaired immune systems

When it comes to pain, it's always best to contact your doctor. You know your body best and should be able to tell when something weird is going on.

How Are Migraines Treated?

Medications that are used to treat migraines fall into two categories: Pain relief medications and preventative medications.

Using pain relief medications is known as an acute treatment. These kinds of medications are taken during attacks and are designed to put an end to awful migraine symptoms whereas preventative medications are drugs that are taken regularly. They are intended to diminish the severity or frequency of attacks.

A List of Medications to Talk to Your Doctor About

Pain Relievers
Triptans
NSAIDs
Many doctors will recommend taking aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen for mild symptoms. There are also drugs designed specifically for migraines. These include combinations of pain relievers and caffeine. These drugs probably won't help a severe migraine, though. Also, there can be health problems associated with taking these medications for a long period of time, make sure to ask your doctor.
These drugs are frequently used to treat migraines. They work by constricting blood vessels and blocking pain pathways in the brain.
NSAIDs, particularly naproxen, may help prevent migraines and reduce symptoms.
Use this list to talk to your doctor about the best treatment options for your migraines.
Staying hydrated is an important factor in preventing migraines, but alcohol consumption is a common headache trigger for many people.
Staying hydrated is an important factor in preventing migraines, but alcohol consumption is a common headache trigger for many people. | Source

Treating Migraines Naturally

If it's something you want to try, talk to your doctor about non-medication methods of preventing and treating migraines like following a healthier diet and routine. According to the American Migraine Foundation, simple diet changes like eating five small meals a day, including foods with healthy fats and avoiding alcohol can have a positive impact on how often you experience migraines.

Some other tips for preventing and treating migraines, from the American Migraine Foundation include:

  • Talking with your doctor about seasonal allergies and asthma, which can contribute to migraine symptoms.
  • Learning to combat stress and anxiety (which can trigger migraines) by making it a priority to get enough sleep, make time for the relationships that are important to you, and keeping a calendar or planner handy to keep your schedule from getting overwhelming.
  • Keeping a headache diary of what seems to bring on your migraines, and when. You and your doctor can use this as a tool in pinpointing and managing specific triggers.
  • Staying hydrated, since dehydration can be a major trigger for migraine sufferers. This is a big one for me. As a mom, I tend to be so busy taking care of my kids that I forget to gulp water every hour or so.
  • Limiting caffeine intake. While not having any caffeine at all can trigger a headache, too much can do just as much as harm.

When it comes to the difference between migraines and other types of headaches, the most important thing to ask yourself is, "How often is this pain disrupting my life?" If the answer is "too often" then, whether it can be officially classified as one type of headache or another, seeing your doctor is the first step in addressing the pain.

Using the information here, write down your questions for your doctor, your biggest concerns, and what your hope for treatment is. Then call them up and make an appointment so you can get on the path to feeling better.

© 2018 Kate Stroud

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