What’s the difference? Headaches vs. Migraines

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Chances are you’ve experienced a headache in your lifetime. Headaches are one of the most common problems that healthcare professionals treat. Often, people confuse headaches by labeling them as migraines; however, the two are different.

What is a headache?

Headaches are pretty self-explanatory. They cause pain in the head, but also in the face or upper neck. The pain can come gradually or suddenly and can occur sporadically or become a chronic condition.

There are two main group classifications of headaches: primary and secondary. While primary headaches refer to independent conditions causing pain, secondary headaches are a result of other medical conditions.

Primary vs. secondary headaches

The most common form of headache is called a tension headache, affecting around 42% of adults worldwide. Tension headaches usually feel like intense pressure around the head. Some causes of tension headaches include jaw-clenching, tightness or tension in the neck, hunger, stress, or lack of sleep.

Cluster headaches often cause pain behind the eyes or on the side of the head. They are called cluster headaches because they occur in clusters– multiple recurring headaches that happen around the same time every day for several weeks (usually 6-12 weeks).

Migraines are also a type of primary headache and usually are much more severe in nature.

Secondary headaches are caused by medical conditions that affect the central nervous system. These conditions include:

• Sleep disorders
• Brain tumors
• Strokes
• Withdrawal from medications or drugs
• Head trauma

What is a migraine?

A migraine is a type of headache disorder that usually feels extremely painful and produces more intense and debilitating symptoms that can interfere with daily life. Migraines cause throbbing headaches that can last anywhere from hours to many days. Some other symptoms of migraines may include:

• Nausea
• Vomiting
• Sensitivity to light, sounds, or smells
• Worsening of headache with slight physical activity

While the pain in tension headaches is usually more chronic and steady, migraines tend to have a throbbing or pulsing sensation that is exacerbated by the slightest physical exertion, such as walking up stairs.

Migraines often begin in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood and can follow someone throughout their life. They can progress in four stages, but not everyone who has migraines goes through all stages.

Migraine Stages

Prodrome: This phase occurs 1-2 days before a migraine hits and includes non-painful symptoms like mood changes, frequent yawning, food cravings, neck stiffness, and constipation.

Aura: The Aura phase can occur before or during a migraine and includes sensory disturbance symptoms that build gradually over several minutes and can last anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes. Aura symptoms include:

• Vision loss
• Pins and needles sensations in arms or legs
• Weakness or numbness in the face or side of the body
• Difficulty speaking
• Hearing noises or seeing various shapes, bright spots or light flashes
• Uncontrollable movements like jerking
• Difficulty understanding what others say
• Difficulty writing
• Having trouble thinking clearly

Attack: This phase is when the actual migraine occurs and can last from four to 72 hours if not treated.

Postdrome: The postdrome phase occurs after the migraine hits and usually leaves people feeling drained, exhausted, or confused for a few hours to up to several days.

Migraine Risk Factors

Some risk factors associated with migraines include:

• Being female
• Having a family history of migraines
• Mood disorders like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder
• Sleep disorders


There are certain triggers that can make symptoms flare up in people that have migraines or chronic headaches. Triggers vary from person to person, but some common ones include:

• Hormonal changes in women
• Stress
• Alcohol or caffeine consumption
• Sensory stimuli
• Sleep changes
• Medications
• Certain foods or food additives
• Weather changes
• Depression or anxiety


Headaches and migraines are incurable; however, there are different methods of treatment that can help alleviate and manage symptoms.

Over the counter medications like pain relievers and melatonin have shown to be helpful in treating mild migraines and headaches.

Prescription medications such as antidepressants, anti-nausea medications, triptans, or anti-seizure medicines can also be helpful in treatment and prevention.

Non-Medication prevention can include changes in lifestyle and behavior such as dietary changes, exercising regularly, and learning stress-management techniques.

Other treatment may involve botox, massage, chiropractic care, aromatherapy and more.

Struggling with persistent migraines or headaches? Find someone to treat migraines or headaches near me.


  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20360201
  2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324890.php
  3. https://www.medicinenet.com/migraine_vs_headache_whats_the_difference/article.htm

Kristen Luft is a digital marketer working on health-centered blog posts for Wellistic. When she's not writing, you can find her reading, snuggling her greyhound or chihuahua, or following the latest trends on Instagram.

More To Explore

Featured Businesses


Journey To You

New Featured

QC Kinetix (Boca Raton)

New Featured Verified

Valera Counseling Services (Greensboro)

New Featured