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Headache or Migraine? How to Tell the Difference

December 6, 2021
Man with headache holds his head in his hand

Head pain can be intense, it can come on quickly, make it difficult to work and function and it can completely ruin your day. If you’re experiencing chronic head pain, possibly along with other symptoms, it’s important to know if you’re dealing with a headache or an acute migraine. Understanding the difference can help you figure out what’s causing your symptoms so you can prevent or at least minimize your discomfort. Read on to learn more.


A headache is an aching pain or tightness on both sides of the head, sometimes extending into the neck and shoulder muscles. Headaches can cause enough discomfort to slow you down and interfere with daily life, but typically do not impact the ability to function.

Seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the following symptoms with a headache or circumstances, as they could indicate a more serious medical problem:

  • Numbness or weakness in any part of the body
  • Speech difficulties or struggling to understand what other people are saying
  • Confusion
  • Fever and stiff neck
  • Double vision
  • Severe headache that develops instantly
  • Headache after head trauma

The most common type of headache is a tension headache, usually triggered by stress, muscle tightness or anxiety. Headaches can be caused by other factors including sinus swelling or infection, illness like a cold or influenza, dehydration, alcohol, medication, eyesight problems or hormonal changes.


If you’re experiencing regular headaches, you should see a doctor to figure out what is causing your pain, to rule out any serious health conditions and so they can recommend different types of treatment. Headaches are quite common, and if they’re not chronic or concerning, they can usually be treated at home with over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen found in brand name products including Advil and Tylenol. Other interventions including lifestyle changes, relaxation exercises, heat therapy, massage, physiotherapy or acupuncture may prevent and relieve your pain, depending on the cause.


An acute migraine is more than just a bad headache. It is a neurological condition that usually causes a debilitating headache—along with other challenging symptoms—that can make daily tasks impossible. Migraines are described as a throbbing or pounding pain that is more intense on one side of the head, can last anywhere from a few hours to several days and may occur multiple times in a month.

In addition to severe head pain, you may experience any of the following symptoms often in a distinct pattern or sequence:

  • Trouble having bowel movements (straining)
  • Mood swings
  • Food cravings
  • Sensitivity to light, sounds and smells
  • Visual issues including seeing spots, flashing lights or wavy lines
  • Pain behind one eye or ear
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Ringing in ears
  • Speech changes
  • Numb or tingling skin
  • Confusion
  • Extreme exhaustion

Migraine sufferers may have issues with their vision, nausea and dizziness without any head pain, and because these symptoms are isolated, it can make diagnosis difficult. If you suspect you are experiencing migraines, these symptoms should always be taken seriously.


While the cause of a headache can usually be identified, migraines are still not fully understood. Most researchers believe that changes in brain activity that affect blood flow to the brain and surrounding tissue can cause migraine symptoms. Family history and genetics also play a role and your risk increases if you are between 30 to 40-years-old or a woman.

What experts are sure of is that certain factors and events can trigger the onset of a migraine. They vary from person to person, but may include:

  • Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle
  • Allergies
  • Lack of sleep
  • Stress and difficult life events
  • Certain food like chocolate, peanut butter, dairy, citrus and gluten
  • Caffeine and alcohol
  • Weather changes
  • Bright lights, loud noises and strong odours

Migraines are significantly under-diagnosed and under-treated, so sufferers usually need to do some of their own investigation to get the right relief. If you’re experiencing a migraine, record the date, time and what you were doing when your symptoms started as well as what you ate and drank in the last 24 hours. This will help you and your doctor identify triggers and hopefully decrease how often you get migraines.

Lifestyle changes including reducing stress, increasing sleep and physical activity and improving your diet can help. There is also believed to be a connection between migraines and depression and anxiety, so improving your mental health overall can be beneficial.

Depending on your pain level, your doctor may suggest over-the-counter medications specifically designed for migraine headaches or may prescribe a stronger pain medicine. Other prescriptions used to treat seizures, high blood pressure and depression have also been proven to make migraines less frequent or severe. Alternative treatments like acupuncture and herbal remedies can be helpful, but always speak to a health professional before trying something new. Difficult cases may benefit from a referral to a headache specialist.

Next Steps

If you’re dealing with regular head pain or other concerning symptoms, it’s important to first rule out possible health conditions with your doctor. From there, figuring out the cause or triggers will help you find the right prevention and pain management to improve your quality of life.

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