When we talk about “headaches,” we use this as a blanket terminology to describe any number of head pains caused by everything from allergies to stress.

Migraines, however, are quite a bit different.

While there is quite a bit of overlap between headaches and migraines, the two are fundamentally different and, if persistent, require different care. Understanding the difference between the two is often the first step in finding the correct, or improved, medical care for your specific type of pain.

Anatomy of a headache

In some ways, migraines function like normal headaches. They normally cause pain after onset and are brought on by a variety or triggers.

Several common varieties of non-migraine headaches exist, often taking the name of their triggers or symptoms. Here, we find sinus headaches (caused by inflammation of the sinuses or sinus infection), tension headaches (caused by tension and stress), and even cluster headaches (which appear in clusters, often at the same time, day after day).

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With the exception of cluster headaches, most non-migraine headaches are less severe and last for a shorter duration than their migraine counterparts. This results in migraine headaches being far more intrusive, debilitating, and often more difficult to ease.

Anatomy of a migraine

Now that we understand the basics of how a normal headache generally progresses, we can look at some of the main differences that make migraines unique.

For one, unlike normal headaches, migraines are caused by a wider variety of environmental triggers. While the triggers themselves vary across the population, an individual with migraine pain can usually pinpoint a handful of foods, activities, or hormonal changes that create the onset of a headache.

The following list are some of the most common migraine triggers:

  • Caffeine, alcohol, or other dietary triggers
  • Continual use of certain medications 
  • Bright, pulsating, or changing light patterns 
  • Hormonal shifts in estrogen (women) or serotonin (both sexes)
  • Stress 
  • Poor sleep hygiene and/or jet lag 
  • Change in physical activity

For some, an effective way to prevent migraines is through avoiding these triggers. For others, even the best management does not help reduce their pain, especially in situations where their migraines are caused by the medications they use to ease their pain.

Once you reach a point where eliminating triggers and using over the counter medications no longer provides adequate management, it’s time to see a professional.

The Migraine Attack

The symptoms of migraines are incredibly severe and can interfere with the daily function of the individual who suffers with them.

Unlike a headache pain which is diffuse and spread out across the scalp and forehead, migraine pain normally is localized to one side of the head and manifests as a throbbing pain. After onset, they can further cause visual auras, nausea, and vomiting. These headaches can last for up to 72 hours with over the counter medication offering little relife.

You have a migraine: Which Type?

While most migraines share these common symptoms, there are three main types that most individuals experience:

1. Common Migraine

Throbbing pain localized to one side of the head without an aura or other visual disturbance

2. Complicated Migraine

Throbbing pain localised to one side of the head with an aura and/or other visual disturbances

3. Chronic Migraine

Migraines occurring more than 15 days out of each month

How you manage your migraine pain does not differ greatly between the three, especially when factors such as diet and sleep hygiene are properly addressed. In these cases, pain medications, light reduction, noise reduction, and even a caffeinated beverage could help alleviate some of the pain. Other pain management strategies include putting either a hot or cold compress on the affected area.

Understand that while some headaches are not indicative of underlying conditions, others are. This is important to remember if your migraines are chronic, last longer than 72 hours at a time, or are otherwise not managed by using any other strategy. Always speak to a medical professional if you are experiencing severe and prolonged pain to rule out underlying conditions and receive prescription medications if necessary.

Speaking to Pain Management Professionals

Even though headaches are common, they are not always something that is easy to manage. In some cases, therapies and prescription medications are needed to manage the pain and allow you to return to normal daily functioning.

The Arizona Pain and Spine Institute boasts a full team of seasoned professionals who specialize in minimally invasive and clinically proven modalities to help manage both long and short-term pain. We make a point to stay on the cutting edge of new technologies to help reduce pain and increase quality of life. 
Contact us at (480) 986-7246 for more information on the service we provide, find which doctor is right for you, and get on the path to discussing your next treatment options.