Personal Health

Is It an Everyday Headache or Something More? How to Distinguish Migraine vs. Headache

We've all experienced it: that dull ache behind the eyes, heavy pounding on the sides of the head, and familiar pressure and tightness in front of the face.

Almost everyone gets a headache. It's the leading cause of pain and one of the most common reasons for missed days at work or school. Nine in 10 adults experience a headache sometime in their life, while nearly two out of three children will have a headache by age 15. Most people know when they have one, but how many know the difference between a migraine vs. headache? What are the different ways to deal with each of them? Let's investigate.

How Are They Similar?

The two most common types of headaches, tension headaches and migraines, are often confused because they have similar symptoms and can last from a few hours to a couple of days. However, both the nature and intensity of the pain and the resulting impact on daily living may be significantly different between the two. In addition, migraines are three times more common in women than men, while tension headaches affect both sexes about equally.

Differences in Symptoms

The general perception that a migraine is more severe than a regular tension headache is correct. Migraines cause moderate to severe pain that's often described as pulsing or throbbing in one area of the head. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and sensitivity to light and sound. Some people may also see spots or flashing lights or have a temporary loss of vision. In contrast, the pain from a tension headache is mild to moderate and steady (not throbbing), often occurring on both sides of the head. Typically, the pain subsides with rest and relaxation or, if needed, aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen.

Tension Headache and Migraine Causes

Migraines and tension headaches share some of the same triggers, such as fatigue and stress, but each has a distinct underlying cause. Research from the National Institutes of Health suggests that migraine pain is caused by chemical changes in the brain that affect surrounding blood vessels and nerves. This faulty brain activity appears to be inherited; about 80 percent of sufferers have a family history of migraines. In addition, migraines may be caused by a reaction to certain foods, such as cured or smoked meat, aged cheeses, some fruits, and beer and wine. In comparison, a tension headache is not a medical condition. It is brought on by stress that causes your facial and neck muscles to tense up.

Treatment and Prevention

There is no cure for a migraine. The key to preventing one is identifying what triggers an attack and avoiding or limiting these triggers. Some patients are able to manage their pain symptoms with over-the-counter pain relievers, while other patients only get relief from stronger prescription drugs that work directly on the brain chemicals. Strategies for decreasing the frequency and severity of migraines include getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and exercising. Relaxation methods such as meditation and biofeedback (a means of recognizing and responding to bodily signs of stress) are thought to help ease the impact of migraine-related stress.

Most people with tension headaches find relief with nonprescription headache medicines or over-the-counter pain relievers. Doctors recommend that patients with chronic headaches (migraine or tension) keep a diary to track triggers, frequency, and responses to different treatments.

It's important to know which type of headache you're dealing with before you make any decisions or purchase pain relievers. While some symptoms are similar, the added severity of a migraine is notable. To learn more about migraine vs. headache, the American Headache Society is a top resource, but in the end, you'll want to consult with a doctor to determine the specific kind of headache and the optimum course of treatment. Don't let chronic headaches take over your life! Do all you can to fight back.

Posted in Personal Health

Trained in medical marketing communications, New York City-based Jeffrey Young has been a health, science, and medicine writer for 15 years. He has also led content-development groups at two PR agencies and currently freelances for both corporate and academic clients, including Bayer, Covidien, Eli Lilly and Company, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co., and Pfizer. Jeffrey's strengths include interpreting research findings and telling stories that resonate with the average health consumer or patient.

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*This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute health care advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor or physician before making health care decisions.