What’s the Difference Between a Headache and a Migraine? Migraines FAQ

Fact checked by Olga Sadouskaya, MD
Clinical Pharmacologist, Chief Medical Officer

There are a lot of questions surrounding the cause, symptoms, and treatment of migraines: Can migraines be caused by stress? Are migraines a disability? Can migraines cause fever? Well, we’ll answer these questions and more to show the clear difference between headaches and migraines.

A headache is a feeling of pain, discomfort, or pressure in the head, face, and/or neck. They are quite uncomfortable and can be short lived or long lasting. Over 96 percent of people will experience a headache at least once in their life, and 10 percent have severe headaches. Headaches are generally classified under two categories: primary and secondary headaches.

Primary headaches can be caused by stress and changes in sleep patterns but usually have no underlying conditions causing them. Some types of primary headaches include tension, cluster, and migraine headaches.

Secondary headaches, in contrast, are usually caused by an underlying condition or injury. Examples are thunderclap headaches, spinal headaches, sinus headaches, and dehydration headaches.

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Migraine headaches are a fairly common type of primary headache. Migraines are characterized by throbbing pain on one side of your head — often around the eye — accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to sound or light. It is a neurological condition that manifests as moderate to severe headaches. Migraines tend to be:

  • Recurrent
  • Lifelong
  • Severe in intensity
  • Pulsating

For many people, migraines often begin occurring around puberty and can persist throughout a person’s lifetime, with recurrent attacks peaking between the ages of 40 and 50.

What's the difference between a headache and a migraine?

The definitional difference between headaches and migraines is that a migraine is a type of headache, whereas not all headaches are migraines. Unfortunately, migraines are often misdiagnosed, and sinus headaches get easily mistaken for migraines.

In practice, migraines present differently when compared to other types of headaches. They tend to last longer (from about 4 hours to 3 days if left untreated) and are accompanied by additional symptoms. Other primary headaches do not last this long, while secondary headaches go away once the underlying condition is treated.

Migraines are also recurrent and can be severe enough to interfere with your daily activities.

Additional migraine symptoms may include one or more of the following:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Blurred vision
  • Sensitivity to light and/or loud noise
  • Loss of appetite

What are the stages of a migraine?

Migraines are caused by a cascade of reactions in the brain. Usually, a group of excited cells triggers chemicals like serotonin that narrow the blood vessels and cause the pain associated with migraines. This pain is referred to as a migraine attack, and there are four main stages. They include:

  1. Prodrome
  2. Aura
  3. Headache
  4. Postdrome

Prodrome

This is the initial stage of a migraine. It starts a few days before the main symptoms and can last up to 48 hours before an attack occurs. The prodrome or pre-headache stage is often associated with triggers such as alcohol, stress, and certain food. During this stage, you may experience the following:

  • A change in moods, such as irritability or depression
  • Food cravings or a loss of appetite
  • Light sensitivity (photophobia)
  • Fatigue and difficulty concentrating
A woman resting in a dark room to improve symptoms of a migraine

Aura

The aura stage happens immediately after the prodrome stage and can extend until the main headache stage. An aura typically lasts less than an hour. Also, it only happens to about 25 percent of individuals who experience migraines. Auras are characterized by:

  • Visual disturbances, such as seeing flashing lights
  • Numbness and tingling in the arm or leg
  • Trouble speaking
  • Confusion and disorientation

Headache

Migraines usually peak at the headache stage. The pain starts and gradually becomes more severe. It is also localized to one side of the head. Together with the pain, you may also experience other symptoms, including:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Photosensitivity
  • Aura

Postdrome

The postdrome stage is a resolution or hangover stage. After a migraine attack ends, you may feel a sense of mental fogginess. The postdrome phase can last up to two days and is accompanied by symptoms like:

  • Exhaustion
  • Confusion
  • Intense relief

What is the aura of a migraine?

An aura is a warning sensation that precedes a migraine headache attack. It's not the headache itself but a warning sign that a migraine is imminent. An aura can affect your vision, speech, hearing, and movement. It could be any of those things or all of them at once. Some symptoms include:

  • A visual disturbance (like seeing spots)
  • Sensory disturbance (like numbness or tingling in your arm)
  • Neurological symptoms (like weakness on one side of your body)

Auras occur in about 25 percent of all migraines. They usually begin within 30 minutes of the start of a migraine and sometimes even in between attacks. They also last about 60 minutes.

Are migraines hereditary?

Yes, migraines can be hereditary.

Susceptibility to migraines can be passed down through generations. If you experience migraines, there's a 50 percent chance that your children will inherit the condition. Research has shown that many people with migraines have a family history of the condition.

If both of your parents have migraines, your risk of developing migraines increases even further.

Studies have shown that when both parents have migraines, their children are up to 80 times more likely to develop them. Other risk factors that can cause migraines include:

  • Sex (women are 3 times more likely to develop migraines than men)
  • Underlying medical conditions
  • Diet
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Lifestyle choices

Can stress cause migraines?

Yes, it’s true that stress can trigger the onset of a migraine. According to a recent study, about 70 percent of individuals’ migraines are triggered by stress.

Stress can trigger a headache through its effects on brain blood vessels and chemicals that control pain. Stress also causes hormone changes that affect the nervous system and make people more sensitive to pain. Stress factors may include:

  • Work
  • Family
  • Financial issues
  • Depression

Are migraines a disability?

Yes, migraines are a disability. In fact, they are the second most common disability condition globally.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a disability as any condition that restricts one or more major life activities. Migraine disorder has negatively impacted over 90 percent of people who experience it. Migraines can be incapacitating, with symptoms that include nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. They can also last for hours or days.

A woman experiencing a migraine headache due to stress

If you have migraines that cause you to miss work or school and interfere with your ability to function daily, it’s possible that this condition could qualify as a disability under the ADA. You can also get disability benefits for migraines by applying for short- or long-term disability in the United States under Social Security Disability Insurance. This is an option if:

  • Your migraines are chronic and long lasting (up to a year).
  • You are unable to perform physical activities.
  • You miss out on work, social activities, and more.
  • You are a regular taxpayer.

Can migraines cause fever, dizziness, or high blood pressure?

To answer this question, let’s divide it into three parts for easier understanding.

1. Can migraines cause fever?

No, migraines do not cause fever. They are two separate conditions. A fever is an increase in your body’s temperature above its normal level. It is usually caused by an infection from viruses or bacteria. It may also be a symptom of an underlying condition.

2. Can migraines cause dizziness?

Yes, migraines can cause dizziness. Migraines with aura are one of the most common causes of dizziness. In a typical migraine attack, you may experience visual disturbances, such as blind spots and flashing lights. You may also feel dizzy and have problems with balance. This dizziness can range from mild to severe, sometimes making it difficult to stand or walk without falling over.

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3. Can migraines cause high blood pressure?

High blood pressure — also called hypertension — is a condition in which blood flows through arteries with greater force than normal. This increases the risk of damage to the artery walls and may lead to heart disease and stroke.

It is not uncommon for individuals with migraines to have high blood pressure. Both conditions can coexist in the body. However, it is unclear if migraines cause a spike in blood pressure because the difference has been shown to be negligible in tested individuals. However, for preventive measures, it is advised that individuals with both conditions should manage their hypertension adequately, as it may be supportive for their migraine management.

Conclusion

Migraines can be severe, but the key to getting relief from migraines is identifying what triggers them. Once you can recognize the triggers, you should be able to better avoid them. If you or someone you know is experiencing severe pain or other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light or sound, it’s a good idea to contact your health care provider for support.

Try to advocate for yourself, especially if it feels like you’re not getting better after receiving treatment. Explaining your symptoms can assist your health care provider in diagnosing and treating you better.

January 25, 2023