Migraine vs. headache
Reviewed by Dr Bhavini Shah
It’s not always easy to tell if you’re experiencing a headache or a migraine. Although they share similarities there are some key differences too. In this article we’ll explore the symptoms of headaches and migraines, what causes them and how they can be treated.
What is a headache?
Headaches are common and anyone can experience them. Symptoms of pain and discomfort are felt in the head or upper neck. Headaches can vary in intensity, duration, and location, and they can be caused by various factors. Headaches can last from 30 minutes to a few hours.
If you’re regularly experiencing headaches you should talk to a GP. You can also use our headache diary to note down when you have headaches and possible triggers.
Primary headache disorders
A primary headache isn’t caused by an underlying health condition or cause. Headaches are one of the most common disorders which affect the nervous system. The nervous system sends messages between the body and the brain. It’s the chemical activity of your nervous system which contributes to primary headaches.
Primary headache disorders include:
Cluster headaches are relatively rare but extremely painful. They occur in clusters or patterns up to several times a day. The intense pain is typically felt on one side of the head, often around the eye.
These are the most common type of headaches and often feel like a constant, dull ache on both sides of the head. They are usually caused by muscle tension in the neck and scalp. They tend to be stress related and can last up to several days.
A sinus headache is related to sinusitis, where the sinus passages become inflamed or blocked. This can lead to pain and pressure in the head. However, the term "sinus headache" is sometimes used to describe various types of headaches, and not all headaches labelled as sinus headaches are necessarily caused by sinus issues.
Secondary headaches are caused by health conditions. They’re a symptom of a disease or lifestyle factors can influence them. For example they can be caused by panic attacks, dehydration, the flu, brain tumours and blood clots. Less than 10% of headaches seen in primary care (usually a GP) are secondary headaches.
Thunderclap headaches are a type of severe and sudden headache that develops rapidly - the pain peaks within a minute. Although sudden and intense, they are uncommon.
They can be a symptom of a serious health condition. You should seek immediate medical attention for a thunderclap headache.
You should see your GP if:
- Your headache keeps coming back
- Painkillers don’t help
- Your headaches gets worse
- You feel sick, are sick
- You find light or noise painful
- You have a bad throbbing pain at the front or side of your head
Causes of a headache
Headaches can be caused by a number of different factors including:
- Stress and tension
- Lack of sleep or poor sleep
- Certain foods like alcohol or caffeine
- Hormonal changes during your period or the menopause
- Environmental factors like strong smells, bright lights, or loud noises
- Medical conditions such as sinus infections, high blood pressure or more serious conditions/
What is a migraine?
Migraines are more severe than headaches. Although pain is felt which is often referred to as the headache stage, this is part of a migraine as a whole. Migraines are often accompanied by other symptoms such as sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and visual disturbances. They can last for hours or even days and can significantly impact a daily life.
Symptoms of a migraine
There are different types of migraines such as migraine with aura and migraine without aura. Most migraines share the common symptom - intense, throbbing pain. This can be felt on one side of the head, but it can also be experienced with other symptoms.
Migraine with aura
Migraines with aura often have sensory disturbances known as "aura”. They can be warning signs of a migraine attack, as they occur before or at the same time as the pain. These include visual disturbances such as blind spots or flashing lights. Other symptoms include numbness, tingling, pins and needles, dizziness and vertigo.
Migraine without aura
The most common type of migraine, unlike migraine with aura there are no warning signs. The symptoms of a migraine without aura include a throbbing pain on the side of the head. The pain worsens if you exercise and stops you from doing daily activities.
You may also be sensitive to light and sounds, feel sick or be sick.
Causes of migraines
Like headaches, migraines can be triggered by a number of things including:
- Food like alcohol or caffeine
- Not eating regularly
Once you know what triggers your migraines, you can do your best to avoid or reduce these.
Treatment for headaches depends on the type and severity of the headache. For mild headaches, over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen may help. You can also:
- Stay hydrated
- Manage your stress
- Get enough sleep
- Avoid triggers
- Exercise regularly
If you experience frequent or severe headaches you should speak to a GP.
Migraine treatment can include a combination of lifestyle changes and medication. Many of these are similar to how you’d treat a headache. These can include:
- Painkillers like ibuprofen and paracetamol
- Triptans such as Sumatriptan
- Anti sickness medication
- Identifying and avoiding triggers
- Getting enough sleep
- Managing stress
- Regularly exercising
If you’re experiencing regular or severe migraines you should speak to your GP. They’ll be able to find a treatment that works for you alongside lifestyle changes.
You can also request migraine treatments including Rizatriptan and Vydura through our Online Doctor service. Simply answer a few questions and our UK based clinicians will make sure treatment is safe for you.