Headache vs Migraine: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Photo of Man on bed with a headache
Photo of Man on bed with a headache

Each year, 45 million Americans complain of headaches. While one in seven Americans, or approximately 47,000, report migraines each year. But what’s the difference?

It’s important to understand what is a headache and what is a migraine so you can identify what you’re experiencing and treat it accordingly. 

When you’re suffering from a severe headache or migraine, it can be tough to determine what you’re actually experiencing. But differentiating between them can help you find headache relief faster. 

In this helpful guide, we discuss what is a headache, what is a migraine, causes, and treatments. If you need headache help or migraine help, keep reading.  

What is a Headache?

A headache is a very common condition that most people will experience throughout their lives. A headache is typically characterized by pain or aching in the head, often in the temples. It can be constant and throbbing or just a slight irritation. 

Many different factors can cause headaches. 

  • Stress
  • Exhaustion or fatigue
  • Eating processed foods or dairy products
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Seasonal or weather changes
  • Caffeine withdrawal

Many factors contribute to a headache. Once you determine what is causing your headaches, it becomes easier to avoid them. 

Types of Headaches

Did you know there are over 300 different kinds of headaches

Headaches come in many forms, for many reasons, and range from mild to severe. But headaches are grouped into two main categories: primary headaches and secondary headaches. 

Primary Headaches

Primary headaches are not dangerous and usually nothing to be concerned about. Primary headaches do not stem from other medical conditions, meaning the headache pain itself is the main problem. 

Primary headaches include tension headaches, hypnic headaches, and cluster headaches. Migraines can also fall under the primary headache category if other medical conditions do not cause them. 

Primary headaches typically do not need medical attention and will go away on their own. If you have frequent or long-lasting headaches, you may be experiencing secondary headaches. 

Secondary Headaches

Secondary headaches are headaches caused by an underlying medical condition. Like primary headaches, secondary headaches can be caused by many reasons. 

Some medications can cause secondary headaches, if you have a concussion, you may experience a secondary headache, or some medical conditions may cause headaches. 

Any underlying issue that causes a headache characterizes the headache as secondary, not primary. In very rare cases, secondary headaches can be caused by tumors. 

Red flag symptoms of secondary headaches are seizure or epilepsy, vomiting, extreme pain, disorientation, and fever. If you or someone you know experiences these symptoms, seek immediate medical attention. 

If a secondary headache is caused by a head injury, it’s essential to seek medical attention. 

What is a Migraine?

A migraine is a type of primary headache characterized by moderate to severe pain, although typically, patients report migraines as severe pain. Migraines usually start in a localized spot or one side of the head and are often described as throbbing or pulsing pain. 

Like headaches, there is more than one category of migraine. While there are many types of migraines, we’re going to discuss the two most common types: migraines with aura and migraines without aura. 

Migraine With Aura

A migraine with aura is the most common type of migraine. A migraine with aura starts when a person sees an aura. An aura can appear as wavy lines, flashing lights, or general distorted vision. 

Typically, an aura will appear about 30 minutes before the migraine pain. People who suffer from migraines with auras know that an aura is a surefire sign a migraine is soon to follow. 

While we don’t know the exact cause of migraines, they can be triggered by stress, bright lights, menstruation, or lack of sleep. Certain foods are also known to be potential migraine triggers. 

If you experience migraines, avoid eating: 

  • Eggs
  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Dairy products
  • Wheat and gluten products
  • Citrus fruits
  • Alcohol, especially red wine
  • Caffeine
  • Food additives, such as MSG
  • Aspartame, found in diet drinks
  • Chocolate
  • Aged cheeses
  • Nuts

Migraine Without Aura 

Migraines without auras are very similar to migraines with auras. However, they don’t have the warning sign of an aura before they begin. 

Although they don’t have an aura, some other signs and symptoms indicate that a migraine without aura will begin. 

  • Food cravings
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Mood changes (depression, irritability, etc.)
  • Muscle stiffness, especially in the neck
  • Fatigue
  • Increased frequency of urination
  • Yawning
  • Sensitivity to light and/or sound

These symptoms can start as early as days before the migraine pain sets in. Having one of these symptoms does not mean you will experience a migraine, but if you experience some of these symptoms and suffer from migraines, it could be a sign of upcoming migraine pain. 

Like migraines with auras, we are unsure of the root cause. However, migraines without aura can be triggered by the same reasons as a migraine with aura. 

Some people who suffer from migraines may experience one every few years, while others can suffer from them a few times a month. 

Headache Vs. Migraine

While it can sometimes be difficult to determine the difference between headaches and migraines, many factors can help. 

Headaches are usually not accompanied by any other symptoms. If they are accompanied by other symptoms like nausea or dizziness, they are probably caused by another medical concern and should receive immediate medical care. 

Migraines typically are accompanied by other symptoms, including auras and the symptoms listed above. 

While headaches can be minor to intense, migraines are typically debilitating. A migraine can make it difficult to do everyday activities and often requires prescription medications to manage the pain and discomfort. 

If you experience moderate to severe head pain combined with the symptoms described, you may be suffering from a migraine. If you experience mild to severe head pain with no other symptoms, you are probably experiencing a headache. 

How to Treat a Headache

Just like there are many types of headaches, there are many different treatments for headaches. It’s essential to find the treatment that works best for you. 

Headaches can be caused by lack of sleep, eating processed foods or dairy, and alcohol consumption. So, getting enough sleep and limiting your processed foods, dairy, and alcohol can be an effective treatment for regular headaches. 

Breathing exercises or yoga for stress relief can also be effective headache treatments if your headaches are caused by stress. And drinking lots of water can help you avoid dehydration headaches. 

If you’re currently experiencing a headache, a cold compress on your head for a maximum of ten minutes should provide relief. 

If you experience frequent or painful headaches, over the counter or prescription medication may be advised. Speak to your doctor before you take medication. If you feel you need medication to manage your headaches, book an appointment to speak to a medical professional at CityHealth Urgent Care. 

How to Treat a Migraine

If you suffer from migraines, it’s important to have a treatment plan ready. That way, when you feel a migraine coming on, you can address it early and help mitigate severe symptoms. 

Know the warning signs of your migraine, whether they are an aura, mood changes, sensitivity to light, etc., and act as soon as you recognize the warning signs. 

When you feel a migraine coming in, find a dark, quiet place to relax. You can do some breathing exercises or meditation, or take a nap if possible. 

Some people find an ice pack helpful, while others find a heating pad or hot shower can provide migraine relief. Try both and decide what works best for you. 

Like headaches, it’s important to avoid migraine triggers. Avoid foods that can trigger migraines, and keep a food diary. A food diary can help you determine if you have a migraine after you eat certain foods. 

Get lots of sleep, and try yoga or breathing for stress relief. Acupuncture, acupressure, and massage are all stress relief treatments that can help prevent migraines. 

Many people who experience migraines need over the counter or prescription medication to manage their symptoms. If you think you need medication for your migraines,  book an appointment to speak to a medical professional at CityHealth Urgent Care. 

Migraine and Headache Help 

Frequent headaches and migraines can be frustrating and impede your daily life. If you suffer from headaches or migraines, speak to a medical professional. 

At CityHealth Urgent Care, we can help you create a treatment plan to manage your headache or migraine symptoms. 

Our patient-centered approach means our team of experienced medical professionals will support you through your headache and migraine management. You can book an appointment at our San Leandro or Oakland locations, or book a virtual visit and speak to a medical professional from the comfort of your own home.