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Headaches and Migraines: What’s the Difference

For most people, being so sick that you literally can’t function is a once in a blue moon occurrence. But for people who suffer from intense headaches and migraines, this debilitating feeling can happen several times a month – dramatically impacting their quality of life.

It can get so bad that even the simplest of tasks seem impossible.

And finding cures and treatment isn’t as simple as popping a pill. Depending on the type of headache or migraine, regular painkillers might not work. And while there is some overlap in treatments, most headaches need something more specific.

This is why so many people feel like there is no treatment that works for the headaches they’re experiencing.

One major problem is that most people can’t tell the difference between a regular headache or a migraine.

Where a typical headache usually occurs when your body is run down or stressed, a migraine can involve other complications. Also, sometimes migraines can be a symptom of a more serious medical condition – A condition that may need immediate medical attention.

So how do you tell if you’re experiencing a headache or a migraine?

At Treat Headaches we’ve got you covered with our comprehensive guide.
In this guide we will cover:

  • Why headaches occur
  • How to tell the difference between a headache and migraine
  • The most common types of headaches and migraines; and
  • Common effective treatments for your specific type of headache

Let’s dive in…

Headaches and Migraines is there a difference?

For many people, head pain of any kind is often referred to as just a headache. The truth is, there are different types of headaches, as well as some very distinct differences between your regular headache and the more severe migraines that some people suffer.

In order to find the meaning behind the different types of pain, let’s start by defining what a typical headache looks like.

What are Headaches and why do they happen?

Headaches are defined as localised pain in the area surrounding your head, often including the neck area. They happen when the nerve receptors in your head send pain signals to your brain. Often the pain takes the form of pressure, aching, throbbing and even sharp stabbing pains.

For most people experiencing a headache (depending on the type) it can be mild in nature or quite severe. Depending on the severity, this ailment can impact their ability to concentrate or do any complex motor tasks.

Most headaches occur on both sides of your head. Some headache areas include the forehead, temples, and back of the neck. The time a headache can last also varies greatly, sometimes lasting only 30 minutes while others can affect people for up to a week.

Let’s take a look at how you can identify the type of headache you might have based on your headache location. This will help you narrow down the type of pain and make it easier to find the cause and treatment for your specific case.

Headache Types by Location

If you’re not sure what kind of headache you have, then you can quickly narrow down the type of headache or migrane you may be experiencing based on the headache location.

You can also take a look at our headache location chart if you prefer a more visual representation and want to work out your headache location meaning.

Forehead or Frontal Headache

Most commonly headaches occur along both sides of the forehead. These are usually signs of a tension headache or a sinus headache. However, if the pain appears only on one-side, then it’s likely a migraine or cluster headache.

Also see Frontal Lobe Headache and Frontal Headaches for more information.

Headaches Coming From The Top of  Your Head

If you are feeling pain along the top of your head it can be a bit trickier to diagnose. Top of head headaches are usually non-specific in nature and could indicate either a migraine headache or a tension headache.

Back of Head Headaches

Tension Headaches are often associated with pain which comes from the back of the head and neck area. Particularly if you have been experiencing any strain or spasms in your neck muscles from prolonged periods of sitting at a desk with poor posture.

Pain Coming Either One Or Both Sides of The Head

Often migraines exhibit themselves as pain on one side of the head. This kind of unilateral pain on one side of your head may also be a cluster headache as it has similar symptoms.

If you are experiencing extreme radiating pain on one side of the head it can also indicate more severe conditions such as shingles. If you start to break out in sores, get medical attention immediately. Delaying treatment can lead to nerve damage which can linger for years, or in extreme cases, a lifetime.

Pain Originating Behind The Eye

If the pain you are experiencing is only coming from one eye, then it could be a migraine headache. If the pain is coming from behind both eyes, it’s more likely a sinus headache. In rare cases, pain coming from behind the eye could be signs of an orbital tumor. In any case it’s best to check with a physician if the pain persists.

You can also take a look at our types of headaches diagram for more information.

Common Causes of Headaches

While there are many possible causes of headaches, some more extreme than others. The good news is the most common causes are quite simple and easy to fix – Often requiring a slight change to your lifestyle to ease the pain.

Let’s take a look at some of these common causes of headaches.

Poor Eyesight

One of the most overlooked causes of chronic headaches is deteriorating eyesight. For most people, your eyesight gets worse gradually over an extended period of time. The change is so gradual that many people go for years not realizing that their vision has been slowly getting worse.

If you spend a lot of time reading or staring at a computer screen and find that you’ve been getting regular headaches, get your eyes checked. Not only can prescription glasses alleviate your headaches, but you’ll be surprised at how much better you can see.

Poor Diet

Some people are more sensitive to the food they eat than others. With food allergies on the rise and more and more people experiencing low tolerance for processed foods, a change to your diet may be the answer to alleviating your headaches.

MSG, food coloring, and some preservatives can trigger headaches. It’s also possible that you’re missing important vitamins and minerals in your diet, like magnesium. By eating a varied and clean diet and improving the quality of the food you eat you can drastically decrease the occurrence of headaches.

If you suspect you have a food allergy, see your physician and request a pin prick test. Not only could it reduce your headaches but avoiding foods you have a low tolerance for can improve your quality of life.

Overworking yourself and not getting enough Rest

We are all busy. So busy in fact that sometimes we get so caught up in what we are doing we push our bodies far beyond their limits.

A lack of sleep can not only cause headaches, but can also cause other negative physiological as well as psychological effects.

If you find it hard to get to sleep at night or to switch off your brain and relax, you can try mindfulness practices like meditation to calm your mind.

For others, physical exertion through exercise can improve your body’s ability to rest. If none of those work for you, natural supplementation using melatonin can help you get the rest you need.  

Dehydration

What’s the first thing you reach for in the morning when you get up? If you answered a hot cup of coffee, then you’re not alone.

Often headaches are a result of people not drinking enough hydrating fluids. And while a hot cup of joe may feel great, drinking a glass of water can do a lot more to alleviate headaches since caffeine can often dehydrate you.

A good indicator that you are dehydrated is the color of your urine when you go to the bathroom. The darker it is the more dehydrated you are. But bear in mind, if you take supplements such as a vitamin B complex, your urine will appear darker than normal even if you are well hydrated.

So next time you are ready to make yourself another cup of coffee, try drinking water instead. Not only will it help you spread out your caffeine consumption, reducing the risk of getting the jitters or feeling anxious, but it can keep the headaches at bay.

Poor posture

If you sit at a desk or in front of a computer for eight hours a day, you probably suffer from poor posture. Slouching and craning your neck puts additional strain on your upper body and neck muscles which can lead to headaches.

And while good ergonomics is one way to combat poor posture, the simplest solution is to get up and move. Every 45 minutes try to get out of your seat and stretch. You can even find exercises online which can help you stretch the muscles that get sore after sitting for extended periods of time.

So keep an eye on your posture, and if you find yourself slouching or craning your neck, it might be time to take a break and a stretch.

Common Types of Headaches

Now that we’ve covered some of the causes of headaches, let’s quickly cover some common headaches most people experience. And while there are many different types of headaches, for this guide we are going to focus on the 5 most common types of headache you are likely to experience.

1. Tension Headaches

The most common headache type (according to Mayo Clinic) is what’s referred to as a tension headache – also known as a stress headache. Some of the triggers associated with this type of headache include stress, muscle strain, and anxiety.

If you suspect you are suffering from stress and tension headaches, you can find out more here.

2. Caffeine Headache

You might be asking, “Does caffeine help headaches?”

Well yes and no. As the name suggests, a caffeine headache comes from over-consumption of caffeine. However, a caffeine withdrawal headache can also be triggered if you don’t maintain your regular dose of caffeine each day.

So technically if you are experiencing caffeine withdrawal then yes more caffeine does help, but if you have had too much then the opposite is true. Either way, too much of anything is never a good thing.

So if cutting out caffeine completely isn’t an option for you, then gradually reduce your caffeine intake over a few weeks to minimise the effects of caffeine withdrawal and the occurrence of a coffee headache. Caffeine pills are also a viable alternative to control how much caffeine you are having and wean yourself off gradually.

Learn more about how caffeine affects your body and how you can minimize a caffeine headache.

3. Menstrual Headache

Menstrual headaches tend to come from the shift in hormone production in women during their menstrual cycle. While hormones play a significant role in causing these headaches, it can also be triggered by lower levels of other minerals (such as magnesium) in a woman’s system during her cycle. Taking a supplement of magnesium for treating headaches can help.

To find out more on how to minimise menstrual headaches, read our guide here.

4. Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches come in clusters (obviously) and tend to occur on one side of the head. Typically the experience comes in waves where you experience intense headaches followed by headache-free periods. Cluster headaches are sometimes confused with migraines because they typically only affect one side of the head.

If you think you are experiencing cluster headache symptoms and want to know how to get rid of cluster headaches, check out our guide here.

5. Sinus Headaches

You may be wondering what causes sinus headaches. Sinus headaches come from an infection in the facial sinuses or from irritation and inflammation of the nasal cavities from allergies. The best medicine for sinus headache will depend on what’s causing the infection or irritation there are several different options for treatment.

If you want to learn how to get rid of a sinus headache, see our guide on sinus headache treatment.

Now that we have your different types of general headaches covered, there is one other type of headache which is far more serious than normal. The dreaded Migraine.

What Is A Migraine And What Are The Symptoms?

A migraine is a headache that also includes other symptoms in addition to the standard head pain you may be feeling.

Migraine headache symptoms include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to sounds
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Short term vision loss
  • Pain behind the eye
  • Pain behind the ear
  • The appearance of flashing lights of spots in your field of vision

Compared to other headaches, pain from migraines are typically moderate to severe in nature. Migraine sufferers report having pain so intense that performing any kind of daily tasks becomes extremely difficult. Sometimes requiring urgent medical attention for treatment.

Migraines usually fall into two categories – Migraines with aura and migraines without.

What is a migraine aura?

A migraine aura often refers to a series of neurological symptoms a person experiences before they get a migraine.

These sensations can happen anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes before the full blown effects of the migrane are felt. Some of these symptoms include:

  • Feeling a lot less mentally alert or having difficulty thinking straight
  • Feeling lethargic or a lack of energy
  • Seeing strange zig zag patterns and lines or flashing lights (also referred to as an ocular migraine aura)
  • Feeling a tingling or numbing sensation in the face or hands
  • Feeling dizzy or experiencing vertigo
  • Getting an unusual sense of taste, smell or touch

However, some people don’t experience an aura in which case there is rarely any warning that a migraine is coming.

What can cause a migraine?

There are many various factors that can trigger migraines. Some of these migraine triggers may include:

  • Psychological factors like anxiety and depression
  • The use of certain medications and contraceptives
  • Alcohol can play a big factor in the onset of migraines
  • Hormonal changes either through menstruation or menopause

Migraines can also be triggered by the foods you eat, so it’s important to take note of what you ate in the last 24 hours and try to work out if particular foods are triggering your migraines. Just some foods that can trigger migraines:

  • Coffee and caffeinated drinks
  • Chocolate
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) often found in many asian foods
  • Dairy products such as milk and cheeses
  • Frozen foods
  • Cured meats
  • Certain fruits (citrus fruits, avocados, bananas, etc.)

The key thing to remember here is that everyone is different and your migraine trigger may be completely different to someone else’s migraine trigger. A great way to keep track of your migraine triggers is to keep a migraine journal.

This way over time you can map out the frequency, severity and things that could be triggering your migraines.

Types of migraines

Optical Migraine

Often precursored by an ocular migraine aura, and optical migraine is one where the sufferer experiences visual disturbances. These can take the form of blurred vision, partial of total vision loss and even spots and lines in their field of view. Typically the symptoms clear up after half an hour from when they start.

Unlike typical migraines, these symptoms never occur with a headache. Often referred to as a “migraine aura without headache”, “migraine without pain” or even as a “silent migraine”. However, make sure you aren’t experiencing a scintillating scotoma, which is often confused with an ocular migraine, and can be an indicator of a more severe medical condition.

Check out our article on ocular migraine symptoms for tips on how to get rid of an ocular migraine.

Chronic Migraines

The most severe migraine experience. Usually classified as headaches that happen more than 15 times a month, over a three month period.

Chronic migraines can be debilitating. To the point that the frequency of the migraines can make driving and keeping a stable job very difficult. But like most migraines they can be triggered by a variety of different factors and can be reduced or even completely eliminated if you can find out what triggers them for you.

There are also migraine treatment options you can consider to help alleviate the severity of a migraine when it comes on. Check out our guide on migraine treatment options.

So now that we’ve covered the differences between headaches and migraines, let’s take a look at treatment options.

How To Get Rid Of A Headache

Most headaches are treated effectively with over-the-counter medications.

The most common treatments include:

  • Acetaminophen and aspirin are common over the counter painkillers available in the United States.
  • Ibuprofen is an anti-inflammatory pain killer which is readily available around the world
  • Paracetamol is an alternative to acetaminophen that is usually sold outside of the United States.

Because many headaches (particularly tension headaches) are induced by stress, you can try natural treatments instead of taking medications.

Not only can these be a great way to reduce your stress levels but they can also prevent future headaches.

Some natural remedies you can try:

  • Relaxation techniques such as meditation and yoga.
  • Heat therapy where you apply a warm compresses to the affected area.
  • Massage therapy which can help loosen up any tension in your muscles.
  • Regular breaks and stretches if you are sitting at a desk for extended periods.

There are many more types of headaches and their specific treatment options. If you would like to read more on your particular type of headache here is a list of articles where you can get more specific information:

Migraine Headache Cures and Relief

Often with migraines, prevention is more effective than treating a migraine headache once it has already started.

Here are some preventative measures you can take:

  • Change your diet. Try eliminating foods and beverages you know trigger your migraines, such as caffeine and alcohol.
  • Take medications prescribed to you by your doctor. Blood pressure medicines, Antidepressants, and other medications can help reduce the chance of a migraine creeping up on you.
  • Reduce your stress levels. Spend time outside in nature, listen to relaxing music, meditate, try yoga or simply go for a walk.

But sometimes a migraine can just creep up on you and you need some way to treat the symptoms as quickly and effectively as possible. Some medications known to reduce migraines quickly:

  • Much like regular headaches, mild to moderate pain relievers, such as acetaminophen, or anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, paracetamol, naproxen sodium, or aspirin can help reduce the pain you are experiencing.
  • Some anti-nausea medications, such as promethazine (Phenergan), chlorpromazine (Thorazine), or prochlorperazine (Compazine), can help reduce the effects of any queasy feelings you may be having. Making your migraine a bit more tolerable.
  • If you find regular over the counter painkillers don’t help than triptans may work for you. Triptans like almotriptan (Axert), rizatriptan (Maxalt), or sumatriptan (Alsuma, Imitrex, and Zecuity) can help to alleviate headaches, nausea and vomiting as well as reducing any light and sound sensitivities you may be experiencing.

Just be aware if you are taking migraine medications frequently (in excess of 10 days a month) you could experience rebound headaches which can make your symptoms worse rather than better. If you find you need to use these medications regularly, please see you physician to see if there are alternative treatments that may be suitable for you.

If you are looking for more detailed information on migraine treatments, checkout our migraine treatment options guide to find the best treatment for your specific condition.

Other articles you might find interesting about migraines and treatment options:

Final word…

If you are suffering from headaches or migraines, you don’t have to suffer in silence. There are treatment options available to you.

We hope this guide helps you find what you need to know. And as always you should see your physician if you are experiencing sudden and extreme migraines as they could be an indicator of a much more serious condition.