Woman holding her head migraine vs. headache

Migraine vs. Headache: Know the Difference for Better Treatment and Care

In Blog by doralneuro

According to the World Health Organization, about half of the world’s adult population is affected by headaches or migraines. However, there is a distinction between these two painful, uncomfortable conditions. When it comes to migraine vs. headache, the more you know about each the better you will be able to treat your symptoms and any underlying health problems that might be causing them.

Do you suffer from frequent headaches or migraines? If asked, could you tell the difference between the two? In case the answer is no, here’s what you should know about these two very different but often confused conditions.

The Many Different Types of Painful Headache that a Person Can Experience

Headaches can cause pain in the head, upper neck, and face, depending on the type of headache you experience. What lots of people don’t realize is that there are many different types of headaches. These different headaches can be categorized as either primary or secondary headaches.

Primary Headaches

Primary headaches occur independently of any other health or medical conditions. When it comes to migraine vs. headache, you might be surprised that migraines actually fall into this category, but we’ll go into that in more detail later in this article.

In addition to migraines, primary headaches comprise tension headaches, cluster headaches, and hemicrania. Let’s start with tension headaches.

Tension Headaches

Many people say that tension headaches feel like a band of pressure wrapped around their head. Tension headaches can be either chronic or episodic with the following causes or triggers:

  • Clenching the jaw frequently
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • Poor posture
  • Stress

If you think you might suffer from tension headaches, talk to your doctor about possible treatment plans.

Cluster Headaches

Unlike tension headaches, which often affect the entire head, cluster headaches usually only affect one side, usually behind the right or left eye. They tend to affect men more often than women, with symptoms lasting anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks. Those symptoms include:

  • Pain behind the eye
  • Congestion
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness
  • Pain on one side of the head

For more information on cluster headaches, speak to your healthcare provider.


This final type of primary headache also usually only affects one side of the head, but unlike cluster headaches, hemicrania don’t normally switch from one side to the other between episode. In short, if you get hemicrania headaches, you will only experience them on the left or right side of the head.

Symptoms of hemicrania include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Irritation of the eyes
  • Congestion
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Sensitivity to light and sound

Now that we’ve talked about primary headaches, let’s move on to secondary headaches.

Secondary Headaches

While primary headaches don’t have an apparent underlying cause, secondary headaches arise from pre-existing medical conditions. These conditions may include things like inflammation, sleep disorders, brain tumors, head trauma, and other disorders.

If you think that your headaches are the result of an underlying condition, it is critical that you speak to a doctor as the condition could be life-threatening.

Migraine vs. Headache: What Is a Migraine?

As mentioned above, migraines are another type of primary headache disorder. However, migraine headaches are only one way that this disorder can manifest. The symptoms of migraine headaches can range from severe to mild and anywhere in between, with episodes lasting a few hours to several days.

Migraines occur in four phases:

  • Premonitory phase – includes non-painful symptoms such as mood changes, frequent yawning, food cravings, and sensitivity to light, sound, and smells.
  • Aura phase – includes symptoms that can affect vision, speech, and touch. Many patients report seeing flashing lights and blurred vision.
  • Headache phase – headache symptoms that range in severity, affecting one or both sides of the head.
  • Postdrome phase – symptoms include confusion, exhaustion, and a general feeling of unwellness.

Migraine vs. Headache: What Are Some Treatments?

While it is true that migraines do not have a cure, there are a lot of different treatment options that those who suffer from them can try. Over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs, ibuprofen, and aspirin have been effective for mild headaches and migraines. Severe migraines may require prescription medication to manage symptoms.

There are also non-medicinal ways to try to manage migraines. For instance, exercising regularly, eating healthy, avoiding known triggers, and learning stress management can be effective.

Ultimately, your treatment plan will depend on your situation. If you are not sure whether the headaches you are experiencing are migraines or just regular headaches, you should speak to a doctor so that you can narrow down a treatment plan that works for you.