What are the differences between a headache and a migraine?

Most of the Australian population has had a headache at some point in their lives. Whether it has come after a poor night’s sleep or a period of stress, headaches can be frustrating. But what about a migraine? When is it that a headache becomes a migraine? Figuring out whether you are suffering from a headache or a migraine is a key step in working out your ideal treatment plan!

Let us outline below classic characteristics of both a tension-type headache and a migraine.

Intensity

Generally speaking; migraines can be much more intense than headaches. Headaches are typically characterised as a ‘dull ache’, ‘pressure around the head’ or ‘tightening’ feel, whereas migraines are more likely to be sharp and throbbing. Alongside this, headaches are often described as a mild to moderate pain where migraines are commonly moderate to severe pain. Another rule of thumb is people can often describe being able to ‘push through’ a headache at school or work, however with a migraine that is often not possible.

Location

A migraine is often felt on one side of the head (either the left or the right). This focus on one side is a classic feature of a migraine yet it does have the ability to shift sides. That means it may start completely on the left and then a few hours later it may have shifted to completely to the right. On the other hand, a headache is generally felt on both sides of the head. Typically, this could be the forehead or the temples, but may encompass anywhere in the head.

Associated symptoms

Migraines are very well known in having a wide variety of associated symptoms. With a migraine it is very common to experience light and noise sensitivity, dizziness, visual disturbances, nausea and vomiting. Some more rare symptoms include smell sensitivity, jaw clenching and even changes in taste! Interestingly, it is possible to have a migraine with just associated symptoms and no head pain! This is classified as a silent migraine.

On the other hand, a headache may or may not have any associated symptoms. If you have a headache, you may feel some light or noise sensitivity, but it is uncommon to feel any other symptoms. Unlike a migraine, you must feel head pain to have a headache!

Exercise

The last clue that it may be a migraine versus a headache is your response to general exercise. With a migraine it can be common for your symptoms to be aggravated through things like running or climbing stairs. This can cause some people to avoid routine physical exercise which may unfortunately lead to things like obesity and, in turn, be linked to further migraines. It is important that if exercise is a trigger to find out a ‘level’ of exercise which you can do without triggering a migraine. The reason is if engaging in regular sub-symptom threshold exercise, this will help reduce the number of migraine days per month. For those with a tension-type headache, exercise is generally not a trigger.

It can be very difficult for people to differentiate between a headache and a migraine. It is, in fact, difficult enough that often health professionals may get it wrong. The lines can be very blurred between separating a migraine and headache where some people may feel qualities of both a headache and migraine with their symptoms. As a rule of thumb, the more boxes you can tick (with the features above) the easier you can narrow it down to a headache or a migraine.

To differentiate, just remember:

Migraine: – moderate to severe intensity

  • Symptoms felt on one side of the head
  • Wide array of associated symptoms
  • Symptoms provoked be exercise

To help determine whether you are suffering from a headache or a migraine, please visit Sydney Headache and Migraine Centre. We can help diagnose and create an ideal treatment plan for your headache or migraine.