Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference

  • Medical Author:
    Danette C. Taylor, DO, MS, FACN

    Dr. Taylor has a passion for treating patients as individuals. In practice since 1994, she has a wide range of experience in treating patients with many types of movement disorders and dementias. In addition to patient care, she is actively involved in the training of residents and medical students, and has been both primary and secondary investigator in numerous research studies through the years. She is a Clinical Assistant Professor at Michigan State University's College of Osteopathic Medicine (Department of Neurology and Ophthalmology). She graduated with a BS degree from Alma College, and an MS (biomechanics) from Michigan State University. She received her medical degree from Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine. Her internship and residency were completed at Botsford General Hospital. Additionally, she completed a fellowship in movement disorders with Dr. Peter LeWitt. She has been named a fellow of the American College of Neuropsychiatrists. She is board-certified in neurology by the American Osteopathic Board of Neurology and Psychiatry. She has authored several articles and lectured extensively; she continues to write questions for two national medical boards. Dr. Taylor is a member of the Medical and Scientific Advisory Council (MSAC) of the Alzheimer's Association of Michigan, and is a reviewer for the journal Clinical Neuropharmacology.

  • Medical Editor: Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

What is a headache?

Headaches, or head pain, can be classified as one of three types. 1) Primary; 2) secondary; and 3) cranial neuralgias (for example, trigeminal neuralgia), facial pain, and other headaches. Examples of common primary headaches are migraine, tension, and cluster. Secondary headaches usually are a symptom from an injury or other medical problem. Types of secondary headaches include "rebound headaches" from overuse of medication, hangovers, meningitis, and post-concussion headaches.

How can I tell if I have a migraine or a headache?

Headaches are one of the most common health problems that doctors and other health care professionals treat. It is among the most debilitating health conditions in the world. Although many people describe all moderate to severe headaches as “migraine,” there are specific criteria used to identify migraine, tension, and other less-common headache varieties. It may be helpful to understand that doctors and other health professionals consider most headaches painful, annoying, or even transiently debilitating to a patient, but they cause little risk.

  • Tension headache, also known as tension-type headache, is the most common form of headache. The majority of the world’s population has experienced a tension headache at some point in their life.
  • Migraine headache or migraine pain is also common, but occurs far less frequently than tension headache. The pain associated with migraine headache is quite different from tension-type headache and can help determine which type of headache a person is experiencing.
  • Cluster headache, chronic daily headache, and medication overuse headache occur much less frequently than tension and migraine headache.

Migraine headaches tend to have some marked differences from other headaches, which helps your doctor determine which type of headache you have. However, there are several different types of migraine headaches. Migraine with aura is one type. An aura is a neurological symptom such as vision change, numbness, tingling, or even difficulty speaking which precedes the onset of the headache), and migraine without aura are the most common.

Although many people believe that any moderate to severe headache is a migraine, there are some specific criteria regarding the type of pain and associated symptoms, which leads to the diagnosis of migraine.

Migraine vs. headache pain: Similarities and differences

The pain of migraine and tension headache are similar and tend to be mild, moderate, or severe in nature. The pain for each type of headache may be located on one side of the head or on both sides of the head.

The differences between the pain of migraine and headache are that migraine pain has a throbbing quality, and many people report that even slight physical exertion (like walking up a flight of stairs) may worsen their pain.

In contrast, the pain associated with tension-type headaches tends to be more chronic and steady. Many people with tension headache describe a band-like tightness or pressure when asked about their pain.

Symptoms and signs: Similarities and differences between migraine vs headache

The only similarity between a migraine and a headache are that they both cause pain. The headache may come on gradually or suddenly.

Migraine is different from other headaches because it may cause symptoms like:

Some doctors consider these symptoms to be an acute migraine attack.

Tension-type headaches may be associated with tenderness of the muscles of the head, neck, and shoulders. If you have this type of headache, you do not have a change in pain with physical activity, and there are no associated sensitivities to light, sounds, or smells.

Differences in causes between migraine vs headache

Doctors believe that the underlying cause of migraines is related to changes in the blood flow in certain areas of the brain, with subsequent alterations in the blood vessels in that region. Chemical reactions may lead to swelling and irritation of the blood vessels (thought to contribute to the characteristic “throbbing” quality of a migraine headache).

The specific cause of tension-type headache is unknown. Doctors believed at one time that chronic muscle tension was the underlying factor, but there now appears to be a more complicated combination of factors that are involved.

Triggers: Differences between migraine vs. headache

Migraine triggers

  • Foods like red wine, chocolate, peanut butter, dairy products, and citrus fruits.
  • Hormonal swings associated with menstrual cycles or pregnancy.
  • Weather changes
  • Certain smells
  • Lack of sleep
  • Gluten can be a migraine trigger for people who have true celiac disease. If you are concerned about this issue, eliminate gluten from your diet for a test period and keep a log for a possible trigger.

The cause of tension-type headache tends to be related to stress and associated tightness or tension in the muscles of the neck or scalp.

How is migraine vs. headache diagnosed (tests)?

Although there are no specific tests for migraine headaches, your doctor may order tests to exclude other conditions or problems that are triggering your headaches. This may include blood work or different brain imaging, such as CAT scan or MRI. In rare cases, your doctor may order a spinal tap to exclude causes of more serious, severe headaches.

A doctor who is experienced in treating various headaches can help differentiate the type of headaches that you have. A sinus headache (caused by sinus infection or allergic rhinitis) often mimics some signs and symptoms of migraines.

Monitoring the duration of your headache can provide important information that can help diagnosis the type of headache you are experiencing. Migraine headaches may last a few hours to three days, while tension headaches may last only 30 minutes or linger for up to a week. Keep a diary of your headaches.

  • Keep a headache diary to help identify any triggers that lead up to the onset of the headache, for example, menstrual cycles for women, hormone treatments, and alcohol intake.
  • Keep track of when a headache begins, the severity of the pain, any associated symptoms, how long the headache lasts, and any medications that you have taken.
  • If there does not seem to be any clearly identifiable cause for your headaches, maintain a diet diary, and keep track of any foods or drinks that you may have consumed the day before a headache to identify possible triggers.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 6/26/2017

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