Migraines: Is it more than a headache?

December 8, 2022 by Tammy Howell

Key Takeaways


Many Americans suffer from both headaches and migraines, but what is the difference?

So What?

This post will help you differentiate headaches from migraines, and alleviate your symptoms.

Now What?

If you suffer from regular headaches, schedule an appointment today at North Country HealthCare!

woman holding head in pain
A 2019 study found migraines to be the leading cause of disability among women under 50.

The Global Burden of Disease study identified headache disorders as a leading public health concern in most countries. In 2019, the study ranked migraines as the second leading cause of disability among all adults, and first among women under 50. In the U.S., over 37 million people suffer from headaches, but less than 5% have received proper diagnosis and care.

Most patients cannot tell the difference between a migraine and a headache, so they dismiss their symptoms as just a headache and not a more serious condition. At North Country HealthCare, we believe in the importance of educating the public about migraines to ensure a proper diagnosis and treatment. This article looks at migraines and how to differentiate them from occasional headaches, as well as how to talk to your provider about what you need to live pain-free.

Differences between a migraine and a headache

To most people, migraines are more intense than headaches. However, it is possible to have a migraine without head pain. Distinguishing between a headache and a migraine can help you seek treatment at the right time, in the right ways.

Headaches are classified into two groups — primary and secondary headaches. A primary headache is one caused by an independent condition. Migraines and tension headaches are examples of primary headaches. Secondary headaches occur as a result of an infection, drug overuse, stress or other factors affecting the body.

You can tell a migraine from a headache by assessing whether the pain is a result of a primary or secondary headache. If you can determine the cause of your headaches, it is most likely not a migraine.

What is a migraine?

migraine is a primary headache that presents with moderate to severe head pain, usually occurring on one side of the head. Other symptoms of migraines include:

  • Nausea
  • Increased sensitivity to smells, light or sounds
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue

Although it is possible for children to experience a migraine, most migraines begin in early adulthood. Migraine episodes occur in four phases. Patients may experience all four stages or less.

Phase 1 — prodrome: The person experiences painless symptoms before the beginning of the migraine. The symptoms, which may include food cravings, mood swings or a stiff neck, occur hours before the migraine fully sets in.

Phase 2 — aura: In this phase, people often complain of sensory disturbances. The person may experience blurred vision, blind spots, slurred speech or numbness in the arms, as well as instabilities in their hearing.

Phase 3 — head pain: This phase is characterized by a throbbing pain in one side of the head. Although headaches are a common symptom of migraines, some people may not experience this phase.

Phase 4 — postdrome: Occurring after the headache has subsided, people often report a feeling of exhaustion, confusion or general body weakness.

Since people may not experience every migraine phase, particularly the aura phase, there are different types of migraines, which include:

  • A migraine with aura: A migraine preceded by warning signs such as sensory disturbances.
  • Migraine without aura: Most common migraine that occurs without warning signs.
  • Silent migraine: Migraine with aura but no head pain. People experience all the warning signs of a migraine, but do not develop head pain.

Causes of migraines

While you can usually tell the cause of a headache, migraines have triggers instead of causes. Common migraine triggers include:

  • Environmental factors such as noise, light or smells
  • Nutritional triggers from consuming certain foods or beverages
  • Hormonal changes
  • Stress, fatigue or inadequate sleep
  • Family history and genetic factors

Migraine treatment and prevention

Although there isn’t a cure for migraines, medication and lifestyle changes may help reduce the intensity and frequency of episodes. Simple things, such as turning off the lights, a warm or cold compress to your head, or sipping a caffeinated drink might also help alleviate symptoms in the short term.

Over-the-counter medication

If you only suffer from occasional migraines, over-the-counter medication may help alleviate the pain and symptoms. According to the American Migraine Foundation, several over-the-counter medications can help, such as:

  • Acetaminophen
  • Aspirin
  • Ibuprofen
  • Naproxen sodium
  • Pseudoephedrine or phenylephrine

Prescription medication

If the intensity and frequency of migraine episodes are high, over-the-counter medications may not be enough. Your doctor can prescribe medication that helps reduce the severity and frequency of the episodes.

Lifestyle changes

A lifestyle change could be the best migraine treatment and prevention option. Here are some changes in your lifestyle that may help.

  • Identify and avoid triggers. While some triggers may be out of your control, you can avoid foods and cosmetic products that trigger a migraine.
  • Regular exercise.
  • Develop positive methods of responding to stress, such as practicing yoga and meditation.
  • Observe healthy sleeping habits.

Get the right diagnosis and proper care for migraines at North Country HealthCare

It is not enough to classify types of headaches on your own. If you occasionally experience headaches, getting a diagnosis is the first step to proper care for migraines. Before your next appointment, try to keep a log of how often you experience a headache or migraine; what are your symptoms; and what are some triggers you’ve observed. This will help your provider work with you to help alleviate your discomfort and work toward a permanent solution. All of our primary care providers provide comprehensive diagnosis and treatment for headaches and migraines. Contact us today to book an appointment.

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