Migraine vs. Headache: Differences, Causes, and Resources


Young woman suffering from a migraine holding her head


Headaches are one of the most common health afflictions, impacting people around the world. There are multiple distinct types of disorders under the general heading of “headache” that vary in their causes, severity, and duration. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “globally, it has been estimated that prevalence among adults of current headache disorder (symptomatic at least once within the last year) is about 50%.”

Migraines are among the most debilitating, recurring types of headaches. They cause severe head pain and occur for various reasons, including stress, overexertion, and eating certain foods or food additives, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Although migraines are a specific type of headache, many individuals mistakenly use the terms migraine and headache interchangeably because they don’t know how to distinguish a migraine vs. a headache.

This guide presents statistics, describes symptoms, and offers resources for treating migraines, including tips for spotting the differences between migraines vs. headaches.

Migraine vs. Headache Information and Statistics

Before examining just what distinguishes migraines from headaches, it’s important to understand the scope and impact of these afflictions.

Data from WHO indicates that one-half to three-quarters of all people aged 18 to 65 experienced a headache in the past year. The Mayo Clinic notes that there are multiple types of headaches, including chronic daily headaches that may occur 15 times or more in a month, tension headaches that feel like a tight ring of pressure around the head, and cluster headaches that occur off and on for weeks or months and cause severe pain on only one side of the head.

While migraines strike men, women, and children of all ages, they’re especially common in women. The Mayo Clinic states that migraines afflict three times as many women as men. One reason that women may experience more migraines is the effect of female hormones, according to Time magazine. The Mayo Clinic reports that if left untreated, a migraine can last from four hours to as long as three days.

WHO identifies migraines and other headaches as a public health concern because of the huge financial costs of the maladies to communities: “As headache disorders are most troublesome in the productive years (late teens to 50s), estimates of their financial cost to society – principally from lost working hours and reduced productivity – are massive.”

Headaches and migraines tend to be undertreated or misdiagnosed. Individuals are often unable to seek treatment for their headaches, or they may not know the difference between a headache and a migraine. Other headache sufferers simply may not appreciate the tremendous negative effects of the illness on their own health and within society at large if they don’t seek treatment. For example, in the U.S. and the U.K., only half of migraine sufferers had seen a doctor for a headache-related reason in the most recent six months, choosing to depend instead on over-the-counter headache medications, which are likely to be less effective than migraine medication prescribed by a physician.

Symptoms and Effects of Migraines vs. Headaches

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, migraines have four phases. Each phase has unique symptoms, although a migraine sufferer may not experience all four.

  1. The prodrome phase begins a day before the migraine strikes and is associated with food cravings and mood changes, among other symptoms.
  2. The aura phase is common before or during a migraine. The migraine sufferer sees flashes of light or lines in their vision and may also experience a sensation of being touched or grabbed.
  3. The headache phase is characterized by throbbing pain, frequently on one side of the head. It’s possible to experience other phases and symptoms of a migraine, but not the headache itself.
  4. The postdrome phase occurs in the aftermath of a migraine. Symptoms include weakness, confusion, and exhaustion.

During a migraine, the individual may experience nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to outdoor environments, and pain when coughing or sneezing.

The symptoms of a hempiplegic migraine feel intense and disorienting; they are similar to those of a stroke. The American Migraine Foundation describes these migraines as lasting from a few hours to many days. People experiencing this type of migraine “develop weakness on one side of the body, often with visual aura symptoms and a ‘pins and needles’ sensation, or loss of sensation, on one side of the body.”

Retinal migraines cause loss of vision in one eye and can last several months. They occur most commonly in women of childbearing age.

Symptoms and Effects of Other Types of Headaches

The following are among the many specific types of headaches, along with brief descriptions of their symptoms:

  • Hemicrania continua headaches are characterized by a continuous pain that varies in severity and typically strikes only one side of the head. (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
  • Primary stabbing headaches, also called ice pick headaches, cause a sharp, short stabbing sensation near the eyes and temples that may bounce from side to side. Most are harmless and go away in weeks or months. They’re common in children and teenagers. (Cleveland Clinic)
  • Primary exertional headaches, or primary exercise headaches, are rare and occur only during or after exercise. The condition should be assessed by a doctor, particularly if cardiovascular risk factors are present, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. (American Migraine Foundation)
  • Chronic paroxysmal hemicrania headaches are rare and cause severe pain to one side of the face and head, often a throbbing, boring, or clawing sensation near or behind the eye, sometimes extending to the back of the neck. (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
  • Medication overuse headaches occur daily and are caused by the overuse of pain medications. These headaches occur for at least three months at a minimum of 15 days of each month. (American Migraine Foundation)
  • Cluster headaches are rare and also the most painful type of headache. They strike one side of the head and face, most often near the eye or temple. The condition occurs twice as often in men than in women and most commonly in individuals age 20 to 40. (National Organization for Rare Disorders)
  • Tension headaches are characterized by tightness or intensity around the forehead and scalp. Other symptoms are tenderness on the scalp and other parts of the upper body, and “dull, aching head pain,” according to the Mayo Clinic. They can last from several minutes to several days or even a month.

Tips and Resources for Treating Migraines vs. Headaches 

Migraines and other types of headaches can seriously impair an individual’s health. The following tips and resources serve as a starting point for people interested in preventive measures and treatments for these ailments.

Monitor Your Diet

Certain foods have been known to trigger migraines, while other foods can be helpful in preventing them. According to the American Migraine Foundation, alcohol and chocolate are the two most commonly reported food triggers, although items such as caffeine, cheeses, and processed meats may contain chemicals known to induce migraines. A regular, consistent diet of fresh, unprocessed foods that are wholesome and free of added chemicals reduces the likelihood of suffering a migraine by eliminating two other triggers in addition to food additive chemicals: hunger and weight gain.

Since the foods that trigger a migraine vary from person to person, migraine sufferers should monitor which foods may be inducing their headaches. It is particularly important to avoid these foods at times when the risk of a migraine is high, such as when you are tired or feeling more stress than usual. Women may be more susceptible to a migraine at specific times in their menstrual cycle, for example.

Maintain Healthy Sleeping Habits

The quality of a person’s sleep and the amount of sleep they get each night may contribute to the frequency and intensity of a migraine. A study published in the journal Medicine found that migraine sufferers in the “medium, high, and chronic migraine frequency groups were more likely to have poor sleep quality than control subjects.” Additionally, the study found that migraines themselves may affect sleep quality. “Waking up in the middle of the night or early morning” may be one of the sleep-related symptoms of migraine, according to the researchers, who point out that more study is needed to support this claim.

Reduce Stress

Stress can trigger a migraine. The American Migraine Foundation identifies an ironic corollary to stress-induced migraine headaches: once a person’s body has adjusted to a state of constant stress, a period of relaxation may result in a “let down” migraine, which is brought on by a sudden sharp drop in a person’s stress level. Stress can be managed by making time to nurture relationships and pursue personal interests, and by establishing your own priorities rather than allowing others to set your priorities for you.

Consider Medication Options Carefully

Individuals suffering from migraines or other types of headaches may seek relief by taking over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin. However, these medications may not be the most appropriate method for treating a migraine. Anyone experiencing a migraine or other type of headache regularly should understand the limitations of over-the-counter treatments for their condition. Only through consultation with a physician or other health professional can they ensure that they’re receiving the best care for their headaches, which may be symptoms of underlying health problems.

Knowing When to Seek the Help of a Health Practitioner

 Headaches and migraines are as unique as the individuals who experience them. The maladies are caused by various factors and range in severity from occasional minor annoyances to constant crippling pain. Don’t wait until your headaches or migraines become chronic and severe to consult a health practitioner to receive a diagnosis and treatment plan that can help ensure a healthy outcome in the short term and long term.


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American Migraine Foundation, Diet and Headache Control American Migraine Foundation, Medication Overuse Headache

American Migraine Foundation, Primary Exercise Headache

American Migraine Foundation, Stress and Migraine

American Migraine Foundation, “What Type of Headache Do You Have?Cleveland Clinic, “Stabbing, Ice Pick Headaches? When You Should See a Doctor” Mayo Clinic, “Headaches: Treatment Depends on Your Diagnosis and Symptoms” Mayo Clinic, Tension Headache

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Hemicrania Continua Information Page National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, Paroxysmal Hemicrania Information Page

National Organization for Rare Disorders, Cluster Headache

Time, “Here’s Why Women Get Migraines More than Men” U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Associations Between Sleep Quality and Migraine Frequency”

U.S. National Library of Medicine, Migraine

World Health Organization, Headache Disorders