Skip to Content

Just the Facts - Understanding the Difference between a Headache and a Migraine


Most adults have experienced a headache at least a time or two in their lives. But how do you know when that intense pain and pressure in the head has tipped over the line from major headache to full-blown migraine? An important place to start is with a definition of each condition.

A headache is an unpleasant sensation in any region of the head or upper neck. It may appear as a dull ache, a throbbing feeling or a sharp pain, and intensities of the pain vary with whatever is causing it. Though most people associate a headache with pain in the brain, the actual pain felt is stemming from the tissues that surround the brain. A headache can be brief – lasting less than an hour – or linger for several days.

On the other hand, a migraine is clinically defined as a specific type of headache that is felt more intensely, and usually has accompanying symptoms in addition to the pain felt in the head. The pain from a migraine can be very severe, and interfere with activities of daily life. Like headaches, migraines can be brief, lasting only a few hours, or the pain can stick around for several days.

Still wondering whether those headaches you’ve been getting could actually be migraines? Usually, a combination of these symptoms will present if a migraine is to blame:

  • Pounding or throbbing pain that is moderate to severe and feels as if it is engulfing the entire head or shifting from one side of the head to the other
  • Heightened sensitivity to sounds, odors or light
  • Vision troubles including blurriness, bright/flashing dots, wavy or jagged lines
  • Abdominal problems including loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting or an unsettled stomach

Headaches and Migraines are caused when the blood vessels, muscles, and nerves in the head are overstimulated. When these pain-sensitive structures become overactive, or when chemical activity in the brain is altered, we feel the uncomfortable sensations of a headache. These changes in the brain may be the result of a number of factors. Triggers for every patient are different, but most can be attributed to one or more of the following:

  • Changes in stress levels
  • Bright lights, loud sounds, and strong smells
  • Skipping meals, resulting in hunger and dehydration
  • Not getting enough sleep, or getting too much sleep
  • Direct physical pressure to the head, like wearing a hat or a helmet
  • Rigorous physical activity
  • Certain foods (chocolate, alcohol, MSG, aged cheeses, processed meats, aspartame, high levels of caffeine)

Approximately 3 out of 4 people who have migraines are women. More women suffer from migraines and headaches due to hormonal causes related to menstrual cycles, pregnancy, or birth control pills. Estrogen, a female hormone, also controls chemicals in the brain that affect sensations of pain. When this hormone level fluctuates, due to stress or hormonal cycles, it may trigger a painful headache or migraine.

So now that we know what they are and what causes them, how can headaches and migraines be prevented? If you’re struggling with frequent chronic headaches and migraines, it is important to find a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating them. For some sufferers, there are medications that can be prescribed to help prevent the attacks before they start. If headaches are just popping up from time to time, some simple lifestyle changes can help:

  • Drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated, and do not skip meals
  • Aim to get about the same number of hours of sleep every night (between 7-9)
  • Don’t go overboard on caffeine, or alcohol
  • Engage in moderate physical activity daily
  • Practice coping mechanisms when stress levels get high

The best way to prevent headaches and migraines is to learn the triggers for your attacks and to do your best to avoid them. Headaches and migraines can be debilitating at times, but knowing how to differentiate between the two and understanding the causes may make it easier to find relief, while kicking those headaches to the curb.