Headaches vs. Migraines: What’s the Difference?

Health Minute

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Headaches and migraines can both be frustrating to deal with and can interfere with your day-to-day life.

A headache is pain you feel in your head from aching muscles in your scalp and nerves in your face, mouth and throat, according to the National Institutes of HealthOff Site Icon (NIH).

The most common type of headache is a tension headache, which is caused by tight muscles in the shoulders, jaw, neck and scalp, according to the NIH. Stress, depression, anxiety and awkward positioning of the head all can lead to a tension headache.

Other types of headaches, according to the NIH, include:

  • Cluster headaches – sharp, painful headaches that occur several times a day for months at a time, then goes away for awhile
  • Headaches from other issues – a cold, the flu, a fever and premenstrual syndrome all can lead to headaches
  • Rebound headaches – these are headaches that keep coming back, often because of overusing pain medicine. These also are known as medication overuse headaches
  • Sinus headaches – focused in the face or front of the head, these headaches are caused by swelling in the sinus passages in behind the cheeks, eyes and nose

A migraine is a severe headache that includes intense, throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head – often behind one eye or ear, or in the temples, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human ServicesOff Site Icon (HHS).

Migraines sometimes have a group of warning symptoms when the headache starts, and it can get worse as you move around, according to the NIH.

If you feel a migraine starting, the NIH recommends trying to following to help:

  • Avoid dehydration by drinking water
  • Find a dark, quiet place to close your eyes and rest
  • Put a cool cloth on your head
  • Use relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or massaging your temples

To treat a migraine, your doctor might prescribe medication or might recommend lifestyle changes, according to the HHS.

When you have a tension headache, you can try to ease the pain with over-the-counter medication, including acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen, according to the NIH.

If you end up taking the medicines more than three days a week to help with headache pain, talk with your doctor, according to the NIH. Over medicating can actually cause more headaches or make them worse.

Over-the-counter medications also can cause other issues if you take too many of them or if they are taken for too long, according to Harvard Medical SchoolOff Site Icon (HMS). Acetaminophen can cause liver issues if taken for too long, and ibuprofen can cause ulcers if too much is taken.

If you find yourself having repeated headaches or migraines, you could start keeping a journal to track your symptoms, the time, location, and length of the headaches. This information is important for your doctor to use to help you find what is triggering your headaches and how to treat them, according to the HHS.

Visit your doctor for help and to make sure it’s not a more serious problem, according to the HHS, if your headache causes the following issues:

  • A headache caused by hitting your head
  • Confusion or loss of alertness
  • Convulsions
  • Disruption to daily activities frequently 
  • Many headaches all of a sudden when you used to not have headaches at all
  • Nausea, vomiting, vision or sensory problems
  • Pain around the eyes or ears
  • Several headaches a month that last for hours or days
  • Stiff neck from headaches

Whether you have migraines or other types of headaches, talking with your doctor can help you find the best way to treat or manage the pain.

Find more information about headaches and migraines or find a physician.

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