Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference

Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), head disorders affect an estimated 50 percent of adults worldwide.

Some people may have trouble distinguishing between a migraine, which is a chronic condition, and a regular headache.

Migraine vs. headache

Headaches and migraines are conditions of the nervous system that can cause headaches.

Headaches cause pain in the head, face or upper neck and can vary in frequency and intensity.

Migraine is an extremely painful primary headache disorder.

Migraines usually produce symptoms that are more intense and debilitating than headaches.

However, some types of migraine do not cause headaches.

Migraine vs. headache

What is a headache?

There are many different types of headaches, which experts have divided into two main groups – primary and secondary.

Primary headaches refer to independent conditions that cause pain in the head, face, or neck. Examples of primary headaches include migraines and tension headaches.

Secondary headaches occur as a result of another medical condition, such as infection, stress, or overuse of medication.

Primary headache

Types of primary headaches include

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are a common primary headache disorder, affecting approximately 42 percent of adults worldwide.

Tension headaches feel like a band of intense pressure around the head.

Doctors divide tension-type headaches into episodic or chronic. Episodic tension-type headaches occur 10 to 15 days per month. Chronic tension headaches are more common and can cause pain in the scalp.

Several factors can cause tension headaches. They may include:

  • jaw clenching
  • hunger
  • depression or anxiety
  • lack of sleep
  • sleep apnea
  • arthritis
  • bending or straining the neck
  • bad posture
  • stress
  • Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches cause severe pain on one side of the head, often behind the eye. These headaches come in clusters, meaning multiple headaches occur at the same time every day for several weeks.

Cluster headaches occur in cycles of recurring headaches followed by headache-free periods.


According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Trusted Source, headaches usually last 6 to 12 weeks. Cluster headaches affect men more often than women.

Symptoms of cluster headaches include

  • severe pain on one side of the head
  • pain behind the eye
  • red, watery eyes
  • perspiration
  • overload
  • restlessness or agitation
  • heart rate changes
  • Hemicrania

Hemicrania is a persistent headache that varies in severity. These headaches usually affect the same side of the head. People can have daily or chronic hemicranial headaches.

Other people may experience periods of recurring headaches followed by headache-free periods.

Other symptoms of hemicrania headache include

  • nausea and vomiting
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • watery eyes
  • redness or irritation of the eyes
  • perspiration
  • overload
  • swollen eyelids
  • Secondary headaches

Diseases and chronic medical conditions that affect the nervous system can cause secondary headaches.

Causes of secondary headaches include

  • Sleep Disorders
  • brain tumors
  • strokes
  • withdrawal from medication or drugs
  • head injury
  • inflammation
  • seizures
  • spinal fluid leak
  • physical deformities of the head, neck or spine

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What is a migraine?

Migraine is a type of primary headache disorder that can cause severe pain and other symptoms. People with migraines may experience recurring symptoms that doctors call episodes or attacks.

Headaches are only one of the symptoms of a migraine, and they can vary in severity. A migraine can cause intense, throbbing headaches that last from a few hours to a few days.

A migraine headache usually affects one side of the head, but some people experience pain on both sides.

A migraine episode can occur in four different stages, although not everyone experiences each stage.

Difference Between Headaches and Migraines – SAPNA Pain Management Blog

Preliminary stage

Doctors also call the preliminary phase of a headache or prodrome. It includes painless symptoms that appear hours or days before the onset of the headache.

Symptoms of the premonitory phase may include

  • unexplained mood swings
  • food cravings
  • neck stiffness
  • frequent yawning
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • sensitivity to light, sounds or smells
  • Aura phase

Aura refers to sensory disturbances that occur before or during a migraine attack. An aura can affect a person’s vision, touch, or speech.

A visual aura can cause the following symptoms in one or both eyes:

  • flashes
  • zigzag lines
  • blurred vision
  • blind spots that widen over time

Sensory auras cause numbness or tingling that starts in the arm and radiates to the face.

Motor auras affect a person’s ability to communicate and think clearly. Motor auras include:

  • slurred or confused speech
  • difficulty understanding what others are saying
  • difficulty writing words or sentences
  • have trouble thinking clearly
Migraine vs. Headache: Differences, Causes, and Resources | Ohio University

The headache phase

Migraine headaches can range from mild to severe. People who have severe migraine headaches may need to seek emergency medical care.

Physical activity and exposure to light, sound and smells make the pain worse. However, people can have migraine episodes without developing a headache.

Postdrome phase

The postdrome phase occurs after the headache subsides. People may feel exhausted, confused, or generally ill during the postdrome phase.

Headache vs. Migraine: How to Know What You're Dealing with | Shape

This phase can last from a few hours to a few days.

Types of Migraines

Migraines fall into several different categories depending on the symptoms. Some examples of migraines include:

Migraine without aura

Common migraines or migraines without aura cause intense, throbbing headaches on one side of the head.

These headaches usually last 4-72 hours. Migraines without aura do not cause symptoms before a migraine attack begins, but people with this type of migraine may have the warning signs described above.

Migraine VS Headache| How to Tell The Difference, Expert Explains.

Migraine with aura

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, approximately one in three individuals with migraines report experiencing an aura before their headache.

People who have migraine episodes with auras may not experience an aura every time. Headaches may or may not accompany auras.

Abdominal migraine

According to the authors of a 2018 article, abdominal migraines usually affect children between the ages of 3 and 10.

Abdominal migraines cause abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting.