Migraine vs Headache

A Headache is NOT a Migraine!

How do you know if you just had a migraine vs headache? The term headache seems to be used generically for any type of head pain. To me, a migraine is NOT just a headache. I think we all know this, but we dismiss it.

Society still does not understand the pain associated with migraines. But it is classified as a headache. It's so confusing.

The bottom line for me, is that a headache is just not as intense nor is it debilitating or soul destroying like migraines.

migraine vs headache

My migraines knock my socks off. I am in indescribable pain and unable to function normally. Research says that you never have just oneIn most cases, it is a lifelong condition.

Research also says that headaches are rarely a sign of a more serious medical condition. This does not mean that they are not horrible to deal with.

I say they may not be life threatening but they are life altering. 

The National Headache Foundation says that over 45 million Americans suffer from chronic recurring headaches and 28 million of these suffer from migraines.

The recent statistics show that approximately 20% of children and adolescents also experience headaches.

Commonly headaches may occur suddenly due to a cold, infection, tension, stress or illness. Sinus headaches are common due to infection. Headaches can occur more seriously as a result of a head injury but they are rarely the sign that something worse is at play.

Migraine vs Headache - The Confusion

It can be hard to tell if you have a migraine vs headache.

Headaches, like migraines have triggers. Stress and pressure from work and family commitments, skipping meals, lack of sleep, rebound headaches from over use of medications, can cause tension and depression.

Eyestrain from over use of the computer, or neck and back strain due to poor posture may also contribute to headaches.

And alcohol! You can get some mighty hangover headaches from drinking too much, accompanied by vomiting and dehydration. Ok, I might be giving myself away here, but I sure had some doozies. 

All similar symptoms, but not really the same intensity of pain levels or duration. And different medications required to be effective. Note to self!

150 Types of Headache Categories

I think some of the confusion comes from the headache classifications. There are 150 types of headache categories established and migraine headache is just one of them.

Here are a few of the most common ones:

1. Tension Headache – these can occur randomly or daily where muscle tension causes mild to moderate pain and possibly constant pain.

2. Migraine Headache – the pain is moderate to severe and can last from four hours to three days. Regular occurrence one to four times per month. Symptoms are listed below.

3. Sinus Headache – constant pain in the cheeks beneath the eyes, forehead and across the nose. The pain usually intensifies with movement. Nasal discharge, fever, pressure around the eyes, facial swelling (eyes), and plugged ears are common symptoms of sinus headaches. Pain can be moderate to severe.

4. Cluster Headache – refers to a regular grouping of attacks occurring several times a day. An attack may last two weeks to three months and then completely disappear for months or years, only to recur years later for a similar pattern of several times a day for two weeks, etc.

They have a burning or piercing quality that is constant and intense. Cluster headaches are rare and the pain is severe. Pain is located behind one eye or in the eye region, it is often one sided. It is common to pace during an attack as sufferers may be unable to sit still.

Regardless of what type of headache you feel you might have, it’s best to get to your doctor with any head pain and let them check it out thoroughly. Once you are diagnosed you can start with the treatment that is right for you.

The treatment is completely different for migraine vs headache, especially in the medications department. Headache tablets will not work on migraines. Simple!

Migraines are a Complex Neurological Medical Condition That Triggers a Chain of Reactions in Our Bodies.

A Headache is Not.

Headache vs Migraine Brain Neuron

A migraine headache is a complicated and complex neurological medical condition that needs proper medical attention and medications to find pain relief.

It disrupts normal functioning and can destroy lives.

A normal headache can be dealt with using aspirin or over-the-counter (OTC) pain killers and is a minor distraction.

Here is what Neuroscientists currently believe:

Triggers and causes are different. Briefly, a migraine can start with any trigger, or any accumulation of a number of triggers. Then comes the excitation often called a “nerve storm” or cortical depression that spreads slowly across the layers in the brain. OUCH! This over activity then causes brain chemicals to be unstable and dilate. 

This change in blood flow causes a constriction and dilation of arteries, thus overstimulating the brain … and the pain is sent back to the brain stem and whamo. You get the often one sided excruciating pain in your head. Brain pain I often call it and it is more than just an ice cream headache.

For more details please read What are Migraines?

Comparing Migraine vs Headache Features

Here are a few more things to help you identify if you have a migraine vs headache.

The definition of migraine as per The International Headache Society (IHS) is that they have at least two to four of these features below accompanied by:

nausea, with or without vomiting, and sensitivity to light, visual disturbances, noise, and or odors.


Migraine Headache

Traditional Headache

Intensity of pain

Moderate to severe

Mild to moderate to severe

Quality of pain


Has a pulsating quality, throbbing.

Dull, pressure.

Distracting but not debilitating, more like a steady ache. Can be constant. 

Location of pain

One Sided.

However, sometimes can affect both sides.

Behind one eye or ear.

Both sides of head. Forehead, scalp and temples.

Like a vice grip is around your head, or your hat is too tight.

Aggravated by

Exertion and movement, and any trigger and most tasks.

Accompanied by

Nausea, dizziness, vomiting, sensitivities to light. sound and smells. Flashing lights, blind spots, or vision impairment. 

Relieved by acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen



So I hope that this help clarifies a bit more what a migraine vs headache is.

I want to also highlight the differences in the intensity of pain and the necessity of using the right medications to abort and manage the life long recurring migraine attacks. 

A headache will pass. It is normally temporary and treatable with over the counter pain killers you can buy anywhere. The use of migraine as a a generic term for headache has led to a huge misunderstanding of just how debilitating the migraine condition can be.

I wish it were all that simple - take two aspirins and call me in the morning!

It is NOT "take two aspirins and call me in the morning!"

Ways to Treat Migraine Headaches

There are many ways to treat migraines. Relaxation techniques, neck stretches, a nice hot bath or shower.

And you want the most successful way ... right? It is best to combine prescribed medications, if you can take them, with complementary natural methods.

After all, we are in this for the long haul.

And always make sure your drugs come from a trusted source. 

Migraine vs Headache Reference: WebMD.com (2015) Migraine Headache Basics. Accessed June 24, 2016.

› Migraine vs Headache: A Headache is NOT a Migraine

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With this new information, what one thing can you do now to reduce your attacks?