Many people think migraine headaches are just severe headaches. But in reality, headaches are just one symptom of migraine. Migraine itself is a complex condition, a collection of neurological symptoms. These symptoms, including migraine headaches, can be disabling.
“Woke up early with headache, severe nausea, abdominal and generalized body pain,” wrote a member of MyMigraineTeam. “Headache pain decreased some [with medications] but nausea and abdominal pain continue tonight. … Praying for relief and sleep. Can't eat without increased nausea.”
Distinguishing a migraine headache from another type of severe headache can be difficult. However, there are some key differences for telling them apart. Understanding those differences may help you and your doctor determine which type you’re experiencing.
Headaches can be categorized into different types based on their causes and symptoms. The three most common types are:
Primary headaches refer to headaches that aren’t caused by any underlying health conditions. In other words, the headache itself is the problem.
Secondary headaches, on the other hand, are a symptom of other diseases or health conditions that also cause head pain. These include sinus headaches, caused by a sinus infection, and headaches caused by overusing pain medications.
Migraine headaches, which are considered primary headaches, are often accompanied by symptoms other than pain. Aside from severe, throbbing head pain, a migraine attack may also cause:
Watch migraine specialist Dr. Amaal Starling explain how migraine is more than just a headache.
Tension headaches, also referred to as tension-type headaches, are the most common type of headache people experience. These primary headaches are typically less severe than migraine headaches and are rarely painful enough to be disabling. However, it is possible to have both migraine headaches and tension headaches. In some people, tension headaches can trigger migraines.
Cluster headaches, among the most severe types of headache, are less common than migraine and tension headaches. These headaches come on suddenly and cause excruciating pain, usually in or around one eye.
As their name suggests, cluster headaches tend to occur in groups, each attack lasting one to three hours. These attacks may occur daily or even several times a day. Periods of frequent cluster headaches, referred to as cluster periods, may last from weeks to months. Epidemiologically, cluster headaches are much more common in men than women.
Sinus headaches often cause throbbing pain and pressure in the sinuses (the cavities in the skull found behind the eyes and around the nose). Sinus headaches are often confused with other forms of headaches, including migraine headaches. In fact, studies have shown that about 90 percent of people who seek medical help for sinus headaches are actually experiencing migraine headaches.
MyMigraineTeam members have shared the broad spectrum of symptoms that often accompany migraine pain.
Severe, throbbing headache pain is the symptom most often associated with migraine, but a person diagnosed with migraine may experience a variety of other symptoms during a migraine attack, including:
Untreated migraine headaches may last from four to 72 hours.
Tension headaches do not tend to cause additional symptoms like nausea and vomiting. And whereas migraine headaches usually affect just one side of the head, tension headaches typically cause moderate pain on or around both sides of the head or in the back of the head and neck. Tension pain is generally felt as a steady ache, unlike the throbbing or pulsing pain felt in migraine headaches.
Sinus headaches are often confused with migraine headaches, as the symptoms of the two may overlap. Like tension headaches, sinus headaches caused by sinus infection aren’t usually accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light or sound. However, both migraine headaches and sinus headaches tend to worsen when you bend forward.
Sinus headaches are accompanied by the symptoms of sinus infection, including:
A migraine headache may also be associated with some similar symptoms, including facial pressure, congestion, and a runny nose. Whereas migraines often last from several hours to one or two days, headaches caused by sinus infection commonly last for several days or longer.
The exact cause of migraine isn’t fully understood. Individual migraine attacks may occur as the result of the body’s nervous system reflex, experts believe. The trigeminovascular theory of migraine is currently the most accepted theory behind the etiology of migraines. According to this theory, migraine originates from the trigeminal nerve surrounding the cerebral vessels, which supply blood to the brain.
In some people, stress on the nervous system can cause the brain to become overly sensitive to light, sound, and pain, resulting in a migraine attack. Genetics also appear to play a role in a person’s likelihood of experiencing migraine, as roughly 90 percent of people with migraine have a family history of the condition.
The cause of tension headaches is not fully understood, either. It was once believed that they resulted from muscle contractions brought on by tension or stress. However, it’s now thought that people who get tension headaches have a heightened sensitivity to pain, leading to the muscle tenderness commonly felt in tension headaches.
Cluster headaches occur when the body releases serotonin (a mood-stabilizing hormone) and histamines (the chemicals responsible for allergic reactions), causing the blood vessels in the brain to dilate. This dilation may occur in response to bright lights, physical exertion, or even changes in altitude.
Like migraine headaches, tension and cluster headaches may be triggered by certain factors. The following are some common triggers for different types of headaches.
Anything that activates the nervous system may trigger migraine attacks, including environmental factors such as lack of sleep, stress, changes in weather, smells, and food. Alcohol, artificial sweeteners, chocolate, and cured meats are all commonly reported dietary migraine triggers. Hormonal changes are also known to contribute to migraines in women.
Allergies can also trigger migraines by causing inflammation of the blood vessels. One MyMigraineTeam member described how a migraine headache “started with allergy symptoms (which was once a trigger) and stopped at about noon.”
In addition to stress, hunger and eye strain frequently trigger tension headaches.
A variety of factors may trigger cluster headaches, including alcohol or tobacco use, bright lights, heat (such as the weather or a hot shower), physical exercise or exertion, change to a higher altitude (elevation), and foods that contain nitrates, including bacon and lunch meat.
It can be difficult to tell whether you’re experiencing a migraine headache or a different type of headache. “I still have no idea what type of headaches I struggle with, as mine are really never the same,” one MyMigraineTeam member said.
If you’re having severe or frequent headaches, talk to your doctor. They’re the best person to determine the cause and type of your headaches and help find the right treatment for you.
In order to diagnose you with migraine, your doctor may assess your medical history and symptoms and perform a physical and neurological examination. However, taking note of the following will help you provide your doctor with as much information as possible to make the right diagnosis:
What treatment a doctor recommends for migraine or another headache depends on the frequency and severity of your headaches. Treatment may include the following medications or lifestyle changes.
Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, including Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), and Bayer (aspirin) may help relieve headaches, including mild migraines. Certain OTC options combine multiple treatments to target certain types of headaches, including Excedrin Migraine and Excedrin Tension Headache.
According to a 2016 study, melatonin — a hormone that regulates the body’s sleep-wake cycle — may help prevent migraines and cluster headaches. Melatonin is typically available as an OTC oral supplement.
If you regularly experience severe migraine headaches, your doctor may prescribe medication to help reduce their frequency and severity. These may include:
People who have or are at risk of migraine, such as those with a family history of the condition, should:
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Do you experience other types of headaches with migraine? What made you suspect that your headaches might be something more? Let members know in the comments below, or start a conversation on MyMigraineTeam.