Headache or migraine

What’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?

Headaches are a common part of life. One minute you are fine and the next your head is throbbing. But what if your headache is more than just a headache. How do you know it’s not a migraine? Headaches are just one of the many symptoms of a migraine.

The truth is migraines affect 14.7% of people which means that 1 in 7 is likely to experience migraines. There are significant differences between headaches and migraines. Knowing the difference between a headache and a migraine is the first step in seeking the proper treatment.

What is a headache?

Nearly everyone has experienced a headache at some point in their life. The most common type of headache is known as the tension headache. In fact, this type of headache affects more than 70% of the population. A tension headache usually lasts for anywhere between 30 minutes to four hours and the pain would be described as mild to moderate. This headache results when the muscles in the head and neck contract.

A headache typically has no warning signs. Most would say their headache came out of nowhere and they did not see it coming. As to what triggers a tension headache, there are many potential causes. Dehydration, stress, anxiety, hunger, and sleep deprivation are all factors that can cause a tension headache. Environmental factors could also play a role in getting a headache such as smells, loud noises, sunlight, heat, and bright lights.

What is a migraine?

A migraine stems from a headache disorder that causes moderate to severe pain accompanied by other symptoms. Headaches are just one of the symptoms of a migraine. During a migraine, there is severe throbbing towards the front or side of the head. This can last anywhere from hours to days.

Migraines also come with a variety of other debilitating symptoms that can be experienced in phases lasting long periods of time. Before a migraine begins, the body experience warning symptoms. This warning phase is referred to as the prodrome phase. The warning signs include mood swings, food cravings, light sensitivity, constipation or diarrhea, tiredness, confusion, and sound sensitivity.

During the migraine

Once the prodrome phase has passed, the real migraine sets in and the aura phase begins. This phase affects the vision, touch, and speech of the person experiencing the migraine. Visual auras disturb the sight and can cause blurred vision, blind spots, or seeing lights. The other auras can cause numbness and tingling in the body as well as slurred speech, difficulty hearing, and compromised motor skills. This phase can be completely debilitating and last days.

After the migraine ends, the person typically feels exhausted and out of it due to the intensity of the episode.

What causes migraines?

Migraines can happen for a number of reasons. It is smart to know what causes them so you can try to reduce your exposure to triggers. Triggers vary from person to person since everyone is different but healthcare professionals have narrowed down a few common triggers that should be noted.

Migraine triggers may include:

  • Stress, anxiety, or depression
  • Sleep deprivation or changes to sleep schedule
  • Hunger or dehydration
  • Hormonal changes or menstruation
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Diet and lifestyle choices
  • Contraceptives or other medications
  • Changes in the environment

How is a migraine diagnosed?

The first step to treatment is a diagnosis and when it comes to migraines, self-diagnosis is not enough. A neurologist specializes in treating disorders that affect the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system. Seeing a neurologist will allow you to be properly diagnosed and explore all treatment options with someone trained to identify what will work best. In order to diagnose a migraine disorder, your doctor will take your symptoms, medical history, and examination results into consideration. A physical and neurological exam will most likely be conducted. An MRI or CT scan is typically performed to confirm a migraine disorder as well as to rule out any other possible disorders or health issues.


If you or someone you know suffers from migraines, then you know just how painful and crippling they can be. The good news is that there are solutions and treatments when it comes to dealing with chronic migraines. Lifestyle changes can be made and medical therapies can be performed to help reduce and prevent migraines.

Our healthcare experts at Foothills Neurology can help diagnose and treat your migraines. We specialize in migraine treatment and love providing our patients with a personalized treatment plan. Our Scottsdale location is now open and specifically for headache and migraine-related patient care.

Foothills Neurology