If you’ve ever suffered from a migraine, then it’s bound to be an experience you’ll never forget as they can be extremely painful.
Being able to distinguish between a common headache and a migraine is very important as they require different treatment.
What is a migraine?
Generally speaking, migraines are moderate to severe headaches in which people experience a throbbing pain that tends to be on just one side of their head. Alongside the pain, you can also feel sick or actually be sick and be more sensitive to light and sound too.1
Types of migraine
According to guidance from the NHS, there are several different types of migraine. People can have a migraine:
1. With aura
They encounter certain ‘warning’ signs just before the migraine begins, such as seeing flashing lights.
2. Without aura
This is the most common type of migraine. These migraines happen without any warning signs.
3. Without a headache
This type of migraine is also called a silent migraine. People typically experience an aura or other migraine symptoms, but don’t get a headache.2
Symptoms can include having pain behind your eyes, ears and/or your temple, feeling or being sick, sensitivity to sounds and/or light, vision problems and seeing flashing lights
You’ll probably find trying to go about your daily life when suffering from a migraine is almost impossible as the throbbing pain can be unbearable.
Being stressed, not getting enough sleep, your hormones and diet can all have a part to play in bringing on a migraine.
Many people find lying in a darkened room helps during a migraine episode. They typically last from 4 hours to 72 hours, but luckily your doctor should be able to prescribe medication that will help make them easier to deal with and stop them from occurring as frequently.
Managing a migraine
As we’ve just mentioned up above, some people find that being in a darkened room can help ease their migraines. You should also:
- Make sure wherever you are is nice and quiet – migraines can also make you more sensitive to sound too.
- Apply hot or cold compresses to your head or neck – ice packs can help numb the pain and heat can help relax your muscles.
- Have a drink with caffeine in it – but only a small amount. Caffeine alone can potentially relieve early-stage migraine pain.
What is a headache?
The pain you experience from a common headache is nowhere near as bad as it is with a migraine. Instead of the pain being on one side of your head, it tends to be focused on your forehead. It could be caused by stress, an illness or injury, and the amount of time it takes to go can vary considerably.
Types of headaches
Just as there are different types of migraines, there are different types of headaches too. They include:4
1. Primary headaches
People of all ages can get a migraine however, it’s more common for women to get them. People can suffer from migraines on a regular basis, such as several times a week, or less frequently, e.g. once a year.5
Tension headaches are believed to be caused by stress, anxiety and depression and can last anywhere between 30 minutes and a few hours. People tend to feel a dull, constant pain on both sides of their head.
These are severe headaches that keep reoccurring. Men are more prone to experiencing them than women, and they’re widely described as an intense burning or piercing pain around one eye. When it comes to cluster headaches vs. migraines, cluster headaches are shorter than migraines and happen over a few months, followed by a period of remission.
Exertional headaches tend to be triggered by strenuous physical exercise and can result in a throbbing pain throughout the head. They’re mainly experienced by people whose family members tend to get migraines.
These are rare and tend to develop when people are in their 50s. They’re referred to as ‘alarm clock’ headaches because they wake people up during the night. When they happen, a throbbing pain is usually felt on both sides of the head.
2. Secondary headaches
Are the most common type of secondary headache and tend to respond to painkillers, but happen again at some point. People who suffer with this type of headache do so on a regular basis.
Happen as a result of sinusitis, which causes the sinuses to swell up. When this happens, people can feel a dull, throbbing ache around their eyes, cheeks and forehead. They are quite rare and tend to be accompanied by nasal discharge.
Drinking more than 400mg of coffee a day (around four cups) can sometimes lead to headaches. People can also experience headaches if they are reducing their caffeine intake too.
Head injury headaches
Minor bumps and knocks to the head and neck can result in a headache, often similar to a migraine or tension headache, developing. Medical advice should be sought for serious head injuries, or if the headache is persistent or gets worse.
Are linked to hormone levels that can fluctuate during the month for women. It’s not uncommon for menstrual headaches to occur just before or during a period due to natural changes in oestrogen.
Drinking too much alcohol can lead to a throbbing headache the next morning or later that day. These migraine-like headaches are usually felt on both sides of the head and feel worse when you move.
Primary headaches are caused by overactivity within your head or problems with the pain-sensitive structures within your head. They aren’t a symptom of an underlying disease.6
Meanwhile, secondary headaches are a symptom of a disease that activates the pain-sensitive nerves in your head. Lots of different conditions, such as concussion, sinusitis, brain aneurysms, ear infections and dehydration, can cause secondary headaches.7
Managing a headache
Treating a headache is often much easier than treating a migraine, as you can take aspirin or ibuprofen to help ease the discomfort. If you’re suffering from headaches regularly you should make a note of when they happen and arrange to see your doctor.
In the meantime, you can also manage your headache by:
- Drinking more water to up your hydration levels.
- Using alternative therapies, such as cognitive behaviour therapy, massage therapy or acupuncture (to help with chronic, tension-related headaches).8
How to prevent headaches and migraines
Headaches and migraines can potentially impact us all, but the good news is, there are certain things we can do to prevent them from happening.
Tips for preventing migraines:
- Get a good night’s sleep – wake up and go to bed at the same time every day.
- Eat well – at around the same time, don’t skip meals and keep a food journal.
- Exercise regularly – physical activity makes your body release chemicals that block pain signals to your brain.
- Manage stress – look for ways to make life less stressful, take breaks and find time to relax.9
Tips for preventing headaches
- Get plenty of sleep – between seven to eight hours a night, if you can.
- Avoid headache triggers – keep a headache diary to identify what causes your headaches.
- Reduce caffeine – it can aggravate headaches and potentially trigger them.
- Eat regularly – eat healthy meals at roughly the same time every day and avoid food and drinks that contain caffeine.10
Can a headache develop into a migraine?
Transformed migraines are a type of headache that turns into a migraine. These ‘migraine headaches’ tend to happen more than 15 days a month in people who’ve had migraines for years.11
When chronic migraine headaches begin, it’s common for people’s headaches to become less severe, but more frequent, until they happen every day. It can be difficult to tell the difference between tension headaches and chronic migraine headaches.
When to worry about a headache or migraine
If you experience any of the following, then you should seek medical advice:
- Weakness, dizziness, sudden loss of balance or falling, numbness or tingling or can’t move your body.
- Trouble with speech, confusion, seizures, personality changes.
- Blurry vision, double vision or blind spots
- Fever, shortness of breath, a stiff neck or rash.
- Headache pain that wakes you up at night.
- Severe nausea and vomiting.
- Headaches that happen after a head injury or accident.
- A new type of headache that starts for the first time after age 50.
- Headaches that are triggered by coughing, bending, sexual activity or other intense physical activity
- A change in your symptoms or pattern of headache/migraine attacks.12
Hopefully, you’re now a little clearer on the difference between headaches and migraines.
It can be difficult to distinguish between the two at times, but there are specific symptoms that can help you clarify what you are experiencing. If your migraines and headaches are sudden, and are accompanied by any of the symptoms listed immediately above, be sure to seek medical advice right away.
To read more about how to treat migraines, have a read of our article: What is a migraine?
Last updated: 11 February 2021
Author: Donia Hilal, Nutritionist
Donia started her career as a freelance nutritionist, later she joined Nestle as their Market Nutritionist to help support their healthier product range, before joining the team at Holland & Barrett in January 2018. Donia has 6 years experience as a Nutritionist and also works with clients on a one to one basis to support their goals which include weight loss, prenatal and postnatal nutrition and children’s health.
Donia has a special interest in; weight management, plant-based nutrition, pregnancy nutrition, special diets and disease risk reduction. Donia’s LinkedIn profile