Headaches & Migraines: The Difference, Common Issues, & When to Seek Help


Whether it’s a sharp pain at our temples, a throbbing behind our eyeballs, or an aching at the base of our skull, we’ve all encountered the unpleasant  sensation of a headache. Big or small, it is hard to focus on whatever task is at hand until the pain goes away. Headaches and migraines are quite common; according to the World Health Organization:

Globally, it has been estimated that prevalence among adults of current headache disorder (symptomatic at least once within the last year) is about 50%. Half to three quarters of adults aged 18–65 years in the world have had headaches in the last year and, among those individuals, 30% or more have reported migraines. Headache on 15 or more days every month affects 1.7–4% of the world’s adult population. 

With that statistic in mind, you can see just how important it is for us to know what distinguishes different types of headaches and when it is time to seek help. 

What is the difference between a headache and a migraine? 

Headaches most commonly impact the neck, face, and head. They can appear in a variety of ways, differing in intensity and frequency. Some individuals report extremely painful headache disorders, and these are most commonly known as migraines. The pain that migraines bring can even impact areas other than your head: for example, they might result in nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and/or sound. 

What are the different types of headache disorders? 

It is important to note that there are different types of “headache disorders,” known as primary headaches and secondary headaches. Migraines are considered primary headaches. 

What type of headaches are considered primary? Primary headaches are independent conditions that cause pain in the head, face, or neck. Examples include tension-type headaches, cluster headaches, and hemicrania. 

What type of headaches are considered secondary? Secondary headaches are when illnesses and chronic medical conditions affect the nervous system. Causes of secondary headaches can include seizures, withdrawal from medication/drugs, sleep disorders, brain tumors, head trauma, strokes, and so on. 

What are the symptoms of headaches and migraines? 

Both headaches and migraines can creep up on individuals in a variety of ways. Let’s take a look at the symptoms that you may experience: 

Symptoms of headaches: 

  • Pain that gets worse with sudden head movement or straining
  • Trouble falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Muscle aching
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Mild sensitivity to light or noise
  • Pain behind or around one eye 
  • Fatigue

Keep in mind that these are common symptoms, however, the intensity, frequency, and symptoms differ from person to person. 


Symptoms of migraines:

Symptoms of migraines progress in 4 stages: prodrome, aura, attack and postdrome. You can experience all, or some, of the stages. The prodrome stage occurs 1-2 days prior to a migraine, and you might experience constipation, mood changes, food cravings, frequent yawning, neck stiffness, etc. 

The aura stage can occur before or during the migraine. You may experience difficulty speaking, visual phenomena (bright spots, flashes of light), vision loss, pins and needles in arms and/or legs, and weakness and/or numbness in the face. 

During  the migraine attack stage, you’ll likely experience some of the following: pain usually on one side of your head (or, at times, on both sides); pain that throbs or pulses; sensitivity to light, sound, and sometimes smell and touch; and nausea and vomiting.

During the postdrome stage, you might feel drained, confused and washed out for up to a day.

When to seek help for head pain

Always be aware of your personal signs and symptoms of migraines and/or headaches. This will help you tackle the pain during, or even before they occur. For example, if you get headaches due to stress, try to do some calming exercises to alleviate some of the stress. Or if you are at a concert and typically experience pain due to the lighting and/or excessive noise, try to remove yourself for some “breathers” as much as possible. 

If the pain has become unbearable, it is absolutely important for you to seek the help you need. According to WebMD, the following are signs you should seek help from a professional: 

A sudden, new, severe headache that comes with:

  • Weakness, dizziness, sudden loss of balance or falling, numbness or tingling, or you can’t move your body
  • Trouble with speech, confusion, seizures, personality changes, or inappropriate behavior
  • 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
  • You have a history of headaches but have noticed a recent change in your symptoms or pattern of attacks

Visit your nearest emergency room, or call 911, if you:

  • Have a sudden, severe headache that is the “worst headache of your life.” Or you have had a seizure, are confused, have passed out, or have a change in behavior. These may be signs of a stroke.
  • Have a severe headache with vomiting, limb weakness, double vision, slurred speech, or trouble swallowing. This may signal a stroke, cerebral hemorrhage, or an aneurysm.

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