Headaches vs. Migraines: Differences, Symptoms, & Treatment

ByAlyson R. Briggs

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What is the difference between headaches and migraines? Also learn the signs and symptoms of each, as well as a few strategies to help relieve their pain.

Headaches vs. Migraines: Differences, Symptoms, & Treatment

June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month.

Although roughly half of all adults globally have at least one headache annually, the World Health Organization indicates that this type of head pain is “underestimated, under-recognized and under-treated throughout the world.” (1)

This article will discuss the differences that exist between headaches and migraines. It will also talk about the signs and symptoms of each, increasing your ability to recognize both conditions, and even providing a few strategies to help relieve the pain.

Headaches vs. Migraines: What’s the Difference?

Sometimes the terms “headache” and “migraine” are used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. While both cause pain in the head region, the severity of this pain is often more severe with migraines than with headaches. The underlying causes are different as well.

Penn Medicine reports that migraines are actually a neurological disease that can be caused by hormone shifts, allergies, the environment (such as changes in weather), and genetics.

However, headaches have a variety of other different causes. (2) A few of the most common headache types and their causes are:

  1. Tension headaches, which are the most common headache type and can be caused by stress, eyestrain, and even hunger.
  2. Sinus headaches, or headaches caused by sinus passage swelling, and often occur when you are sick or congested.
  3. Cluster headaches, which happen when blood vessels in the brain are dilated due to physically exerting yourself or exposure to bright lights, but can also be a result of altitude.

Signs and Symptoms of the Different Headaches and Migraines

The symptoms you experience depend on whether you have a migraine or headache. They also change based on headache type.

If you have head pain that goes from one side of the head to the other and this pain starts at the back of your head while moving forward, you may be experiencing a tension headache.

If your symptoms include pain or tenderness in the cheeks, eyes, and nose areas, this may be due to a sinus headache. Additional signs of sinus headaches include pain that is worse in the morning and pain that increases while bending forward. Sinus headaches may be treated by taking a decongestant, thereby reducing inflammation and swelling in the sinus passage.

If you tend to have head pain around the same time each day, and this pain appears multiple times each day for a long period, cluster headaches may be at play.

If your head pain is accompanied by other symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and being more sensitive to light, sound, or smell – this could be a sign that you are experiencing a migraine. Migraine pain also tends to be more severe than headache pain.

How to Ease Headache and Migraine Pain

The big question is: How do you relieve the head pain associated with headaches and migraines?

The first step is to identify which one you have.

Your healthcare provider can help with this if you’re unsure. CT scans, x-rays, MRIs, and blood tests can all rule out other potential causes, providing a more accurate diagnosis.

The next step once you know whether you are dealing with a headache or migraine, is to recognize your triggers.

  • If you tend to get tension headaches, for instance, stress may be instigating your head pain. Finding ways to regularly decompress can help.
  • If you struggle with migraines, hormonal shifts or changes in weather may be to blame. Reducing or eliminating these triggers can help ease your pain.

Since many of the causes behind migraines are difficult to address—such as your genetics or hormonal changes that might occur with aging—medication may help. The Mayo Clinic reports that these medicines are sometimes helpful for preventing headaches; other times they work by relieving migraine pain. (3)

Again, your healthcare provider can help decide whether this is the right treatment for you and, if it is, which medication may work best.

More Suggestions

Other suggestions offered by the Mayo Clinic for easing migraine pain include:

  • Engaging in relaxation techniques
  • Maintaining a consistent food and sleep schedule
  • Staying hydrated
  • Getting regular exercise

Keeping a diary or log of your head pain can also help you better identify any potential triggers. If you seek treatment, this log also enables you to provide a clearer history of your headaches or migraines.

Alternative Migraine Remedies

Do you prefer natural pain relief options? The American Migraine Foundation has undertaken the painstaking effort of identifying which alternative remedies are effective (and which are not). This is information according to medical professionals. (4)

3 Alternative Migraine Remedies With Some Degree of Effectiveness

Acupuncture can help relieve migraines.

  1. Engaging in acupuncture, with the suggestion that you do your own research to make sure this is the right remedy for you.
  2. Increasing magnesium intake, either by eating magnesium-rich foods or by taking an oral magnesium citrate supplement at a dosage of 400 to 600 mg per day.
  3. Taking a butterbur supplement. Although it is important to know that there are some risks with this approach, such as liver toxicity. Therefore, it’s important to talk with your healthcare provider to learn whether this is safe for you.

Remedies deemed not effective include essential oils, homeopathic migraine treatments, and cream of tartar.


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