What Is The Difference Between A Headache And A Migraine?

Pressure or pain in your head can mean either of two things: it’s a headache or a migraine. But sometimes, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two afflictions. It is important to differentiate because you can treat the ailment quicker with targeted treatments based on your headache type. In addition, a diagnosis is crucial for future prevention of episodes. 

The question of migraine vs. headache comes down to a few key factors. We have broken this down below. 

What is a Headache?

Headaches are classified into two main groups – primary and secondary. Primary headaches are defined as independent conditions that cause pain or pressure in the head, face, or neck. The pain can range from mild to severe. Primary headaches include migraines, cluster headaches, or tension headaches. 

Related: What is a Low CSF Pressure Headache?

Secondary headaches are a byproduct of other medical conditions like infection, stress, or medication overuse. 

Types of Headaches 

There are three main types of primary headaches:

Tension headaches 

The National Institute of Health states that the most common type of headache is a tension headache. Tension headaches can be triggered by stress, hunger, sleep apnea, arthritis, anxiety, muscle strain, or eye strain, amongst other things. 

Tension headaches create a sensation of a band of intense pressure around the head. They can be classified as episodic or chronic. Episodic tension headaches can occur between 10-15 days per month, while the chronic type occurs more often. 

Related: Primary versus Secondary Headaches

Cluster headaches

As the name suggests, the headache is concentrated on one side of the head. These tend to be severely painful and come in clusters, which means that individuals experience a series of headache attacks followed by relief. Usually, these are concentrated above the eye or at the temple. 

They can last for 6 to 12 weeks. Symptoms include pain behind the eye, sweating, congestion, restlessness or agitation, changes in heart rate, or red and watery eyes. 


These are persistent headaches that vary in severity. They usually affect one side of the head. People can have daily or chronic hemicrania headaches, while others have them in episodes with headache-free periods in between. Hemicrania headaches have the following symptoms: 

  • Congestion
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Watery eyes
  • Light and sound sensitivity 
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting 
  • Sweating

Secondary headaches 

Secondary headaches are caused by illnesses and chronic medical conditions that impact the nervous system. 

The causes of secondary headaches are factors like brain tumors, inflammation, head trauma, seizures, sleep disorders, strokes, withdrawal from medication or drugs, leaking spinal fluids, physical deformations of the head or neck, and more. 

One type of secondary headache is sinus headaches which co-occur with sinus infection symptoms like fever, facial pressure, or a stuffy nose. These are often confused with migraines. 

What is a Migraine?

Migraines are a type of primary headache that is characterized by severe pain in addition to a handful of other symptoms. Migraines are experienced in episodes or attacks as symptoms tend to recur. Headaches are only one part of a migraine and can range in severity. 

Related: Complex Migraine Symptoms 

Migraines can cause intense and throbbing headaches that can span one day or a couple of days. Usually, they affect one side of the head, but some individuals experience pain on both sides of their head. 

A migraine has four phases:

  1. Premonitory phase: also known as the prodrome phase, this occurs before the headache begins. The symptoms are not painful and can occur hours or days before the headache begins. Symptoms include food cravings, constipation or diarrhea, light, sound, and smell sensitivity, and unexplainable mood changes. 
  2. Aura phase: these are sensory disturbances that occur before or during a migraine attack. Auras concern vision, touch, and speech. Visual auras can affect one or both eyes with blind spots, blurred vision, or flashing lights. Sensory auras involve numbness or tingling in the arm, which travels to the face. Motor auras make it difficult to speak and think clearly. Individuals may experience difficulty understanding what others say, difficulty writing words or sentences, or slurred speech. 
  3. Headache phase: the headache ranges from mild to severe. Severe headaches should be dealt with by doctors. The pain is sensitive to light, sound, and smell exposure, worsening if the exposure is high. However, some people can have migraine episodes without the headache phase. 
  4. Postdrome phase: this phase kicks in after the headache is over. People may feel drained, unwell, or confused during this phase. The phase can span a few hours or a few days.

Types of Migraines 

Migraines can be categorized differently on the basis of symptoms: 

Migraine without aura:

These are also known as common migraines. They are characterized by intense, throbbing headaches concentrated on one side of the head. The pain can last between 4-72 hours. Migraines without auras do not have symptoms before the onset of the headache. The headache itself is the primary symptom sometimes. 

Related: What Causes Migraines In Females?

Migraine with aura:

As the name suggests, these episodes are characterized by aura symptoms before the headache begins. Individuals may experience a range of aura symptoms like numbness or tingling in their arm, which radiates to the face, blurred vision, double vision, flashing lights, or blind spots. They may be more sensitive to smell and odors. The headache sets in after the individual experiences these symptoms and can last for a few hours or a few days. 

However, people who have migraine episodes don’t need to experience an aura every time an attack occurs. 

Hemiplegic migraines

This rare type of migraine causes temporary paralysis either before or during the headache. Symptoms of hemiplegic migraines include:

  • Vision problems
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Swallowing 
  • Trouble moving one side of the body 
  • Vertigo
  • Piercing or stabbing sensation in the head 

Some people are more at risk of getting migraines compared to others. These include:

  • Having a family history of migraines means it’s genetic. 
  • Those with sleeping disorders.
  • Those who are female. 
  • Those who have been diagnosed with mood disorders like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorders.

Treating Migraines and Headaches 

There are no specific cures for headaches and migraines. However, medication and lifestyle changes can vastly improve the condition, help treat symptoms and prevent future episodes from occurring. 


Tension headaches will go away with over-the-counter treatments such as acetaminophen, aspirin, and ibuprofen. 

Related: Can Migraines Cause Nausea?

Individuals can also try relaxation techniques for stress-induced headaches. These techniques can help relieve the pain and reduce the risk of them occurring in the future. Techniques include meditation, massages, heat therapy, and neck stretching. 


Prevention is the first step in treating migraine headaches. If you know that you are prone to getting migraines, it is crucial to identify your triggers and take steps to prevent episodes from happening. This includes making changes to your diet by eliminating certain foods and taking prescription medicines every day like antidepressants, blood pressure-lowering medicines, or CGRP antagonists. You should also take steps to reduce stress by meditating. 


People who do not get migraines on a regular basis can benefit from medications that reduce migraine quickly. These medications include anti-nausea medicine such as promethazine or prochlorperazine, triptans like almotriptan or sumatriptan, and mild to moderate pain relievers – NSAIDs like aspirin, ibuprofen, and naproxen sodium.

NeuroX provides affordable psychiatric and neurology care right at your doorstep and can provide you with the medical and emotional support you require. Head over to NeuroX right now to get started and get online consultations from a board-certified neurologist of your choice within 24-48 hours.

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