Most of us are familiar with the throbbing pain in our temples. Just another headache, right? Not so fast.
“Migraines affect more than 37 million men, women, and children in the United States, but less than 5 percent of those affected are accurately diagnosed and receive appropriate care,” says Brandeis Brockman, CRNP, BSN, MSN, a nurse practitioner.
Before you write off your pain as just another headache, learn the differences between headaches and migraines. Knowing their key differences can bring you long-awaited relief.
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Types and causes of common headaches
There are many different types of headaches, so identifying the location and nature of your pain can help determine the cause.
Some of the more common types include
Tension Headaches: The pain from a tension headache tends to spread to both sides of the head, often starting at the back and creeping forward. This is the most common form of headache. Eye strain, stress, and hunger are often causes of tension headaches and can be chronic.
Sinus headaches: These headaches often attack when you’re sick or feeling congested. They are caused by swelling of the sinus passages, resulting in pain behind the cheeks, nose, and eyes. The pain is often worst when you wake up in the morning and when you bend over.
Cluster headaches: These headaches are usually very painful and occur in “clusters,” meaning they occur daily (usually at the same time), sometimes several times a day for months. They are the result of the dilation of the blood vessels of the brain due to the release of serotonin and histamines. They can be caused by physical exertion, bright light, or even altitude.
What is a migraine?
When most people hear the term migraine, they often think of a severe headache. But headaches are only one of the symptoms of a migraine, and they can vary in severity and duration.
“Migraines are a neurological disease that involves neural pathways and chemicals,” explains Brockman.
Changes in brain activity affect the blood in the brain and surrounding tissues, causing a range of symptoms. In addition to a severe headache, migraine sufferers may experience some or all of the following symptoms:
- Increased sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells
- Extreme fatigue
A migraine episode can occur in four different stages, although not everyone experiences each stage. The stages include:
Prodrome phase: Sometimes called the pre-headache phase, this phase is characterized by painless symptoms that appear hours or days before the onset of a migraine. These include mood swings, food cravings, and neck stiffness.
Aura phase: Aura refers to sensory disturbances that occur before or during a migraine. An aura can affect a person’s vision, touch, or speech, although not everyone with migraine experiences an aura. Examples of an aura include blurred vision, blind spots that widen over time, numbness in the arm, and slurred or slurred speech.
The headache phase: This is when the pain usually hits, and it can range from mild to debilitating. Physical activity and exposure to light, sound, and smells can make the pain worse. However, some people can have a migraine without developing a headache.
Postdromal phase: The final phase is when the pain subsides. People may feel exhausted, confused, or generally unwell during this stage.
Causes of migraine
While headaches usually have easy-to-find causes, migraines have common triggers, but no one causes them. If you suffer from migraines, you may find that certain factors trigger them.
Triggers vary from person to person and can include:
Gender and hormonal changes: Women suffer from migraines three times more often than men. Brockman says menstrual cycles and hormone changes are a factor in migraines in women.
Allergies: Also called allergic rhinitis, allergies cause irritation and inflammation in the body. Because migraines are associated with blood vessel inflammation, allergies are a known trigger for some people.
Family history and genetics: People with family members who suffer from migraines are more likely to develop migraines. Scientists have discovered a genetic mutation that is common in people with the most typical type of migraine.
Environmental: This category includes a wide variety of triggers such as weather changes, stress, food, odors, and lack of sleep.
Treatment of migraines and headaches
While there is no specific cure for headaches and migraines, medications and lifestyle changes can help treat your symptoms and prevent future episodes.
“Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and aspirin can be helpful for headaches or mild migraines,” says Brockman. “Excedrin® Migraine is another great over-the-counter option that works well for my patients, as does caffeine.”
A 2017 study also found that melatonin can help prevent migraines and headaches. Since the correct dose varies with each condition and person, consult your doctor before using this treatment.
If you regularly suffer from moderate to severe migraines, OTC treatments may not be enough to manage your symptoms. Prescription medications can help reduce the severity of your migraines and prevent future occurrences. Medicines may include:
Blood pressure medicines such as beta-blockers
Botulinum toxin A (Botox) injection
Making lifestyle changes can also help prevent some types of headaches and migraines. These include:
- Regular exercise
- Making dietary changes to avoid trigger foods
- Improving sleeping habits
- Practicing relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation
“Keeping a migraine or headache journal can also help you track patterns and identify triggers. Note things like the day and time your headache or migraine started, your surroundings and activity before the symptoms started, and how long the pain lasted.
This information can help you and your doctor develops a plan to avoid your triggers and reduce the frequency of your migraines or headaches.