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What’s the Difference Between Migraine and a Headache?

You might be accustomed to getting them after a long study session, or you might feel the ache of one beginning when the fireworks still haven’t subsided after 3 AM on the fourth of July. However, when does your casual headache that visits every once in a while become a pulsating nuisance that’s overstayed it’s welcome?

It’s important to know the difference between what seems like an easily treatable headache vs a much more severe migraine.


Your first clue as to whether you have a headache vs a migraine is the severity of the pain that you’re feeling. A symptom of a headache is pain anywhere in the head or neck area. There are various types of headaches such as a dental headache or a temple headache.

A key difference between a headache and a migraine is that a migraine can be described as a sharp, throbbing pain. A few symptoms that might arise with a migraine is nausea, sensitivity to light or certain smells, and an aura that might be visible before a migraine begins.


The amount of time that your symptoms last before and after you take medication can be another significant difference in determining if you have a headache or a migraine.

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Migraines can last anywhere from four to 72 hours. They can occur on almost a daily basis for people that suffer from migraine disorders. The average headache can last anywhere from 30 minutes to seven days.

However, the pain from a tension headache is usually not enough to interfere with your daily activities, unlike a migraine, which may require medication in the long run.


Headaches can be caused by a number of things and daily stressors are among a number of them. For example, a sinus infection could cause pain and inflammation of the sinus cavity, which could result in a sinus headache. A temple headache can be caused by a dental problem, or it can be the result of a recent concussion.

Migraines are usually a bit more complex in their origin. An individual could suffer from a migraine due to a genetic predisposition to them, turbulence of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain, an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, or a disorder that affects the function of the central nervous system.

Migraines can be triggered by the consumption of alcohol and caffeine, hormonal changes that come with starting or stopping a period in women, or changes in your sleep schedule or stress level.


While headaches and migraines are similar in respect to where the pain is located (head/neck area), each condition can come with an entirely different set of symptoms. Symptoms of a tension or temple headache usually include one or more of the following:

  • A constant, non throbbing pain.
  • A pressure around the side of the head that can make you feel like it’s being squeezed on both sides.
  • An aching pain in your neck, back, or temples, especially one that occurs when you’re put under stress.

Symptoms of a migraine include:

  • Nausea
  • An intense, throbbing pain that begins on one side of your head.
  • Local pain in the upper neck, typically on one side.
  • Sensitivity to light, sounds, and smell.
  • Distorted vision


Your doctor may suggest a few different treatment methods for your headache pain. The following have been used to treat persistent headaches:

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  • Acupuncture- It’s been proven that the needles that are inserted into the skin over an acupuncture session, have helped treat individuals with recurring headaches, and without the troublesome side effects that can come with prescription drugs for headaches.
  • Massage- If you can afford it, consider scheduling bi-weekly session with a massage therapist. A session with a massage therapist can greatly reduce the pain that comes with tension headaches, and they can help with temporarily relaxing the tense muscles in your head, neck, or shoulders.
  • Meditation- Research has found that meditation can help reduce the frequency of headaches, and improve pain tolerance.
  • Chiropractic- Most forms of chiropractic adjustments have been shown to bring relief from headaches. Make sure that the doctor is gentle with your neck though.

Treatment methods for a migraine or migraine disorder can vary: Your doctor may recommend that you use over the counter pain relievers such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ergots, which are a combination of ergotamine and caffeine. However, your doctor might want to go forward with the following:

  • A prescription for anti-nausea medications- Anti nausea drugs can help relieve the feelings of nausea that come before or during a migraine.
  • A prescription for Beta Blockers- Beta blockers affect the level of serotonin in the brain, which can help to address a chemical imbalance in the brain that’s related to your migraine trouble.
  • Biofeedback Therapy- Biofeedback Therapy is a process that omits the use of prescription drugs, and helps the patient learn how to control responses to pain that would normally be considered involuntary.
  • Chiropractic- Only precision realignment of the craniocervical junction, a procedure not offered by most chiropractors, can effectively help reduce the neuroinflammation that perpetuates the migraine condition.


When you’re trying to categorize a migraine vs a headache, you’ll find that migraines and their signature throbbing pains tend to come in phases. In the waning phase of a migraine (prodrome) you’ll notice pain one side of the face,  excessive yawning, a change in mood such as feeling depressed or irritable, and a feeling of fatigue.

In the second phase of a migraine, an individual might experience distorted vision or see a migraine aura. You might see tiny spots swimming in your vision, blurry vision, or a partial loss of sight. Hallucinations and hearing things that aren’t actually there could also occur in the second phase.

In the third phase of a migraine, individuals have complained of feeling ‘hungover’ once a migraine has passed. After the migraine is over, it’s not uncommon to battle with feelings of depression, fatigue, or to have trouble concentrating. You may also have trouble comprehending information that you normally could.

A tension headache usually won’t be accompanied with an aura, or a prodrome and can be caused by lack of sleep, stress, conflict, or a case of arthritis in the neck.

Tension headaches usually aren’t responsible for stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, or a weak or numb feeling. In some individuals with a migraine disorder, a tension headache can be a part of one of the first phases of a migraine.

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