Migraine vs. Headache: How to Tell the Difference + 7 Ways to Prevent Both

woman holding her head in her hands - difference between headache and migraine

Most everyone has had a headache at some point in time. In fact, roughly half the population suffers from some type of regular headache. But how can you tell if that headache you’re having is something more concerning? Likewise, how can you tell the difference between a headache and a migraine? Knowing the “red flags” that suggest something more serious is important. At the same time, knowing how to prevent headaches can improve your life substantially. The following insights provide you with answers to these and other questions regarding headaches and migraines.

Defining the Difference Between Headaches and Migraines

So, what is the difference between headache and migraine? A migraine is a type of headache. Migraines affect about one out of every 8 people, and women are more commonly affected. Estimates suggest that more than two-thirds of migraine sufferers are women. That being said, migraines have some fairly common features that help you know if your headache is a migraine. Classic migraine characteristics include:

  • A throbbing headache pain
  • A headache that is often one-sided
  • Headache pain that moves around (think headache + pain = migraine)
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Nausea and sometimes vomiting
  • Vision changes that occur briefly (blurring, “sparkles,” squiggly lines)

Understanding these common features of a migraine, it becomes easier to tell the difference between a headache and migraine. The most common types of non-migraine headaches are tension headaches. While stress and “tension” can cause these headaches, stress also triggers migraines. Therefore, the tension label describes the actual discomfort of the headache more than the actual cause. With this in mind, tension headaches tend to have the following features:

  • Tight, squeezing, or pressure type of pain
  • A headache that usually involves both sides of the head or all around the head
  • Pain that is steadier and more constant (not throbbing)
  • Sensitivity to light and sound
  • Headache pain that may extend into neck muscles

What Causes Migraines and Headaches to Occur?

In order to know how to prevent headaches, it is naturally important to know what causes them to occur. When it comes to migraines and tension headaches, both can be caused by some common triggers. For example, both migraines and headaches are more likely when you are under stress. Likewise, lack of sleep, hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion all lower your threshold for having a headache or a migraine. As a result, pursuing a healthy diet and lifestyle, to a great extent, is how to prevent headaches from occurring.

For migraines, however, a few additional triggers are worth noting. For example, some foods may make migraines more common or severe. Aged cheeses and meats may cause migraines more frequently in some people. Also, food additives and preservatives like aspartame and monosodium glutamate (MSG) might also be triggers. Even chocolate, caffeine and alcohol can make migraines more common for some. Other common triggers for migraines in women also include hormonal changes. This may pertain to natural changes that occur within the body, or it might involve medications. Knowing which of these might trigger your migraine can help you know how to prevent them.

When to Be Concerned About a Headache

woman holding her head in a dark room - difference between migraine and headache

You now know how to tell the difference between a headache and migraine. But what if your headache doesn’t fit neatly into either category? How do you know if your headache is something more serious? In general, there are several red flags that you should know about when it comes to headaches. If any of the following features pertain to your headache, then talk with your health provider about your concerns.

  • Rapid, sudden onset of intense pain
  • Brand new headache symptoms never before experienced
  • A change in your normal pattern of headaches
  • Headaches beginning after age 50
  • Headaches that occur with coughing or exertion
  • The worst headache of your life
  • Any headache with neurologic symptoms (weakness, clumsiness, loss of vision)

How to Prevent Headaches and Migraines

Most of the activities done to avoid headaches and migraines involve avoiding those things that cause them. Therefore, taking good care of yourself and eliminating triggers will prevent headaches and migraines most effectively. Of course, this may not be as easy as it sounds. Stress can creep up on us, and avoiding certain foods (like chocolate!) can be challenging. Regardless, making the effort is important since this can reduce how often and how severe your headaches or migraines might be. When preventing the onset of headaches, here are some things you might want to keep in mind.

  • Plan your meals as best you can while avoiding food triggers
  • Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated
  • Make sure you routinely get adequate sleep
  • Exercise regularly to stay healthy, sleep better, and relieve stress
  • Adopt healthy stress management techniques such as yoga and meditation
  • Consider periodic massages and relaxation activities
  • Try to keep a consistent routine and schedule

Some Additional Pearls of Headache Wisdom

For many individuals, periodic headaches and migraines will still occur despite best efforts. But some additional best practices in managing your headaches or migraines can help here as well. First, don’t wait to treat a headache or migraine. Especially for migraines, the earlier you treat, the better off you will be. Whether it involves sleeping in a dark room or taking pain-relieving medication, sooner is much better than later.

At the same time, taking pain relievers too frequently can actually cause chronic headaches to develop. If you find you’re taking pain relievers more than once a week, talk to your healthcare provider about other options. Periodic headaches or migraines are bad enough. No one wants a chronic, constant headache! Other treatments, such a prevention medication, may be ideal for you if your headaches or migraines have become frequent.

Knowing the difference between a headache and a migraine can help you enjoy life to a greater extent. This knowledge helps you know how to prevent headaches and migraines. Likewise, it can alert you when you might need to seek professional help. In any case, adopting the healthy lifestyle tips provided can help make your headaches or migraines less frequent and severe.

About the Author

Dawna is a mom of two young kids, puppy lover, ice cream lover, chocolate lover, and lover of any ice cream with chunks of chocolate in it. She is the author of seven books, a business owner, certified health coach, motivational speaker, and creator of the 5-Day Detox and the 14-Day Clean-Eating Program. Dawna appears regularly on local and national television. She has appeared on the Today show, Martha, MSNBC, HSN, and morning news programs on NBC, CBS, ABC, and Fox. Dawna is a highly sought-after speaker and has done speaking engagements for Chobani, Disney, American Heart Association, Mass Mutual, Wharton Business School, Women’s Entertainment Television, PGA Tour, Super Bowl Leadership Forum, Susan G. Komen, and many more.
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