Headaches and migraine are painful sensations with pressure and aches. There are different types, with differing triggers and treatment options.

What is a headache?

Headaches are any uncomfortable pain in the head that can cause pressure and ache. The headache can occur on one or both sides of the head and the pain can range from mild to severe. It can occur in specific areas like the forehead, temples and back of the neck. There are different types of headaches.  

What is a migraine?

Migraine is head pain which can be intense and severe. It can be on one side of the head or can affect both sides of the head. A migraine attack usually causes intense pain that can be throbbing and affect daily tasks. The attack itself is divided into two categories, migraine with aura and migraine without aura. An aura is a sensation or a feeling a person may experience before a migraine attack. 

Migraine vs Headache symptoms

Tension headaches are a dull aching pain which occurs on both sides of the head. It can feel like a pressure around the forehead, and tenderness in the scalp, neck and shoulder muscles. It usually occurs due to stress, poor posture, dehydration and sometimes eye strain. It can last for 30 minutes to hours and sometimes persist for days. 

Cluster headaches are severe, piercing pain on one side of the head or around that eye, often with redness, swelling and even tearing of the eye. The reason they occur is unknown but usually are thought to involve abnormalities in the hypothalamus. They occur in clusters over weeks or months with each attack lasting 15 min to 3 hours. 

Sinus headaches are deep, contact pain in the cheekbones or forehead or nose. It usually is accompanied with nasal congestion, fever or facial swelling. It is caused by inflammation or infection of the sinus. They last for days or until the underlying sinus is resolved. 

Other types of headaches are caffeine withdrawal headaches which can be mild and often associated with fatigue or post-traumatic headaches which can be accompanied with sleep difficulties post a traumatic event. 

The symptoms of migraine are intense, throbbing pain usually on one side. Migraines can be with or without an aura. An aura can be described as the visual disturbance such as light, blind spots or tingling in the hands and face that occur before the migraine begins. Other common symptoms are nausea and vomiting and sensitivity to light, sounds as well as sounds and touch. These can last from 4 hours to 72 hours if untreated. 

Migraine vs Headache triggers/causes

Tension headaches usually occur due to stress, poor posture, dehydration and sometimes eye strain. It can last for 30 minutes to hours and sometimes persist for days. 

Cluster headaches’ cause is unknown but usually are thought to involve abnormalities in the hypothalamus. They occur in clusters over weeks or months with each attack lasting 15 min to 3 hours. 

Sinus headaches are caused by inflammation or infection of the sinus. They last for days or until the underlying sinus is resolved. 

Secondary headaches could be due to a side effect of a medication, could be some sort of headache disorder or medical condition causing the headache pain. It is also possible to have a medication overuse headache due to having high traces of a medicine in the system. 

The usual cause is genetics as migraines generally run in families. Hormonal changes especially in women can be triggered by menstrual cycles, pregnancy or menopause. Sleep deprivation is also a common migraine trigger and usually resting will ease an attack. 

Environmental factors such as weather changes, strong smells and bright flashing lights can all be possible migraine trigger points. There are certain dietary triggers including alcohol, caffeine, chocolate and aged cheese.

Migraine vs Headache treatments

There are many treatments for headaches. There are over the counter medications for pain relief such as aspirin, ibuprofen and paracetamol. There are lifestyle modifications which can help prevent headaches. These include stress management techniques, regular exercise, proper hydration and adequate sleep. 

Identifying and avoiding triggers are important to prevent the headache. Maintaining good posture, taking frequent breaks during activities and implementing relaxation techniques can all help in prevention of headaches. 

Migraines are often improved by resting/sleeping in the dark, quiet room and placing an ice pack on the neck. There are various options for treating migraines. Pain relief medications may help in a mild migraine. Other more moderate to severe migraines would need prescription medications such as triptans, ergotamines and anti-nausea medicines. 

There is a major role of non-pharmacological actions or lifestyle adjustments such as behavioral therapy and establishment of regular sleep, balanced diet and stress management. Some benefit has been seen in preventative medications such as beta blockers and certain antidepressants. It is also advisable to avoid any physical activity as it is worsened by movement. 

When to seek medical help

  • If the headaches or migraine occur frequently or are debilitating (prevent you from engaging in daily activities), you should seek medical attention.
  • If you have a new migraine or headache and you are over the age of 65 years and have a history of cancer or weakened immune system or are pregnant or postpartum, you should seek medical attention. 
  • If you believe your headaches are medication induced or come with vision changes, confusion, fever and stiff neck. 

Consult the doctor

Individuals who may have new onset of headache type pain or are suddenly getting severe headaches, a consultation with a health professional may be necessary. A migraine or headache management plan developed by a doctor can help manage the condition.

Consult a doctor