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Headaches vs. Migraines: Understanding the Differences

Almost everyone experiences a headache at some point in their life. Causes vary from underlying medical conditions to lifestyle choices— and the pain can range from being an annoyance to being completely debilitating. Whether you suffer from the occasional tension headache to chronic migraines, GoHealth Urgent Care’s expert healthcare providers are ready to help you get back to health.

Are all headaches the same?

There are over 300 types of headaches, according to Harvard Medical School. Experts tend to divide these types into two main categories. A primary headache comes without being caused by another condition. An individual whose headache comes on due to an underlying cause or condition has what is called a secondary headache.

Common Types of Headaches

Tension Headaches

One of the most common types of headaches for teens and adults is a tension headache. Four in five Americans report experiencing mild to moderate pain that feels like tight, equal pressure around the head. The pain happens without other symptoms and can come and go.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are rarer headaches that impact less than 1 in 100 people. Pain is intense and focused on one side of the head, often surrounding the eye area. That pain can radiate out to the shoulder and neck and may also include a runny nose or irritated eyes. Cluster headaches describe a cycling pattern of a period of intense pain followed by a pain-free period.

Sinus Headaches

A sinus infection,congestion, or pressure in the sinuses can cause a sinus headache. Pain localizes at the bridge of the nose, in the cheeks, and forehead. This pain radiates out from the nose. A sinus headache features steady pain that is mild or moderate and can include postnasal drip or nasal congestion. Pain can intensify when leaning forward, bending over, or lying prone.


Migraines are painful headaches that tend to localize on one side of the head. A migraine can include other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light or sound. This powerful type of headache lasts at least four hours. About 12% of the population experiences migraines.

What causes a headache?

A variety of conditions, causes, and factors can lead to a headache. Brain tissue and the skull lack the nerves required to register pain. Instead, the pain originates in the head or neck's blood vessels. Headaches can start in other areas, too, including the scalp, sinuses, and even teeth.

Lifestyle Causes of Headaches

Lifestyle factors, like stress, fatigue, poor sleep, or even bad posture, can cause a headache. What someone eats and drinks can bring on headaches. Overindulging in alcohol is known to cause headaches. Dehydration or hunger can lead to a headache, too. For some people, chocolate or processed foods with (MSG) can trigger a headache.

Overuse of medications, like the ones prescribed for migraines, creates a type of headache called a rebound headache. Loud noises or bright lights, including a computer screen, are also known triggers. Overexertion—too much exercise—or being too sedentary may also lead to a headache.

Underlying Conditions that Cause Headaches

Headaches can also be a secondary symptom of another underlying health issue. For example, individuals with high blood pressure, anxiety, and depression are prone to headaches. Muscle tightness elsewhere in the body, especially the head or neck can lead to a headache. If an individual grinds their teeth or has gotten a concussion, they may also experience headaches.

Some women experience headaches when estrogen levels drop right before menstruation. More severe health problems can cause secondary headaches. Blood clots, carbon monoxide poisoning, brain tumors, and stroke are all sometimes accompanied by a headache.

How are headaches diagnosed?

Often, healthcare providers rely on an individual's description of the headache to determine the type of headache and what recommended treatment and prevention might be available. A healthcare provider will listen to learn about pain someone experiences as well as look for any patterns. Lifestyle and underlying health concerns can also be critical pieces of information. Further examination may include blood tests, x-rays, or scans of the brain, including an MRI or CT.

What are some effective treatments for headaches?

Once a headache has begun, an over-the-counter pain relief medication can bring relief. Medications that help treat depression and high blood pressure can prevent headaches related to those conditions. A heating pad can help a tension headache, while relief for a sinus headache can come from applying a cool compress to the face.

Addressing the causes of secondary headaches, such as treating anxiety, high blood pressure as well as reducing lifestyle factors like alcohol consumption, stress, poor sleep or posture, or muscle tightness in the head and neck can help alleviate frequent headaches.

Some individuals say they find relief with alternative options for treatment. While not proven effective with evidence-based research, some people look to treatments like acupuncture, hypnosis, meditation, and supplements. Discussing options with a healthcare provider is an important step to finding the right treatments.

What are differences between a headache and a migraine?

While a tension headache is painful, a migraine can be debilitating, lasting for at least four hours and up to 72 hours or longer. The severe pain associated with migraines typically focuses on one side of the head and may pulse, throb, and pound. The pain from a migraine may get worse with physical activity.

Other Symptoms of a Migraine

Beyond powerful pain, nausea, and vomiting, as well as light and sound sensitivity, are other signs of a migraine. Some people experience auras when they have or are getting a migraine.

What are types of migraines?

There are many subcategories, but migraines are classified by whether the person with the migraine experiences an aura.

Migraines with Auras

If someone experiences an aura, up to an hour before pain starts, they have what is called a classic migraine. An aura may be visual and include seeing bright dots or lights flashing. It may also involve seeing wavy lines or blind spots, blurry vision, or vision loss. Skin tingling and trouble communicating are other aura symptoms.

Migraines without Auras

If someone does not have an aura with their migraine, it is also called a common migraine.

What happens during a migraine?

Healthcare providers typically divide migraines into four phases. Early warning signs, including feeling thirsty, sleepy, irritable, depressed, or excitable, happen during the prodromal phase. The aura phase, if someone experiences auras with migraines, is next. The third phase, the attack phase, is when the powerful pain occurs as well as any sensitivity to light, sound, and smells or nausea and vomiting. The postdrome phase, after the most severe pain, can include a day-long period of feeling tired, sluggish, confused, and residual pain.

What triggers migraines?

Nerve endings in the brain are triggered to create the pain of a migraine. Triggers include many that can cause other types of headaches, like stress, certain foods, and caffeine. Changes in the weather or to your sleep can also trigger a migraine. Healthcare providers also believe there is an inherited genetic factor that causes migraines.

What treatments are available for migraines?

Migraines cannot be cured, but they can be treated. Pain relievers available over the counter, such as those containing acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen, can help with all headaches and may help with migraines. For individuals who experience nausea, a prescription anti-nausea medication can help. Treatments also include biofeedback or wearable medical devices that send magnetic or electrical pulses to the brain.

For frequent migraine sufferers, considered four or more migraines days per month, a healthcare provider may recommend preventative medications.

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