Migraine or Headache: Is There a Difference?

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

Most of us are familiar with the ache in the temples and experience it from time to time. But, do you ever question yourself whether it’s a headache, common for half to three quarters of adults aged 18–65 years, or a migraine?

Let’s look at the main difference between headaches and migraines, their causes, symptoms — and what you can do to prevent them or minimize their effects.

What’s a headache?

Headache is a pain in your head, face, and sometimes in the upper neck. The pain is usually mild and dull, mainly felt throughout the slump and forehead. Headaches fall into two categories: primary and secondary, caused by an underlying medical condition.

There are several types of primary headaches:

  • Tension headaches. They cause mild to moderate pain and go over time with no other symptoms.
  • Cluster headaches. They occur on one side of the head and come in cycles of headache attacks, followed by headache-free periods.
  • Hypnic headaches. These headaches are rare and usually occur in people over 50 years old. They happen exclusively at night and can last from 15 minutes to 4 hours after waking.
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Headaches usually occur because of:

What’s a migraine?

Indeed, a migraine can be called a particular case of a headache. However, migraines usually come with more symptoms than just a simple headache.

It’s important to note that migraine is a neurological condition and can become chronic with severe throbbing pain for 15 or more headache days per month.

Usually, people with migraines might experience the following:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • pain behind one eye or ear
  • flashing lights
  • temporary vision loss
  • sensitivity to sound or light

Migraines are often divided into two categories: migraines with aura and without.

Migraines without aura happen without specific signs. However, they might be accompanied by anxiety or fatigue. This type of migraine is the most common in the population.

A woman with a migraine lying down on a sofa

People who suffer from migraines with aura have some ​​sensations 10 to 30 minutes before getting a migraine. These might include feeling less mentally alert or having trouble thinking, seeing flashing lights, or having an unusual sense of taste or smell.

Migraine ​​risk factors include:

  • genetics
  • gender
  • stress level
  • smoking

The main triggers for migraines are:

  • emotional anxiety
  • hormonal changes
  • environmental and weather factors
  • dieting
  • not drinking enough water
  • bright light and other sensory stimuli
  • alcohol

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How to mitigate headaches and migraines?

  • Improve sleeping routine. A healthy sleep schedule will help reduce cortisol, a stress hormone, which might be responsible for triggering headaches.
  • Eat healthy food. Try to avoid alcohol, excessive amounts of coffee, citrus fruit, and baked goods with yeast.
  • Exercise regularly. During training, your body releases endorphins that reduce stress and decrease the frequency and intensity of headaches.
  • Try yoga, deep breathing, and meditation. It might help to relax your mind and reduce the stress associated with migraine headaches.

Closing remarks

Pay attention to the headaches you have and the symptoms you experience before the actual headache starts. If any signs of an aura occur, consult a physician to avoid triggers and reduce the frequency of your migraines.

February 10, 2023