Headaches & Migraines: An Overview

Everything you need to know about headaches and migraines, including the differences between them, their respective causes and common treatment paths.

What is the difference between a headache and a migraine?

The straightforward differences between the two are intensity and locality. While a headache is characterised by mild, dull pressure, a migraine is a much more intense, pulsing or throbbing sensation. Further, while a headache is felt throughout the head, a migraine might be felt on only one side of the head.

As a final difference, some migraine sufferers report additional symptoms in the form of nausea and/or vomiting, dizziness or seeing halos, flashing lights or blind spots around their vision – symptoms which are often made worse by loud sounds and/or bright lights.

Can I avoid developing a headache or migraine?

You can reduce your risk of developing headaches by:

  • Staying hydrated
  • Getting plenty of rest, particularly when you have a cold or the flu
  • Having regular eye tests
  • Avoiding stressful situations as much as possible
  • Avoiding known trigger foods (e.g. aged cheeses, wine, onions, chocolate)
  • Exercising whenever you can
  • Consuming caffeine in moderation
  • Trying manual therapies and mind-body techniques

You can reduce your risk of developing migraines by:

What causes headaches and migraines?

The most common causes of headaches are:

  • Having a cold or the flu
  • Stress
  • Being hungover
  • Problems with your eyes
  • Eating too little, irregularly
  • Being dehydrated
  • Taking too many painkillers
  • Having a period

The most common causes of migraines are:

  • Hormonal (i.e. before the start of, or just after a period)
  • Emotional
    • Stress
    • Anxiety
    • Tension
    • Shock
    • Depression
    • Excitement
  • Physical
    • Tiredness
    • Poor quality sleep
    • Irregular sleep patterns
    • Neck or shoulder tension
    • Jet lag
    • Low blood sugar
    • Strenuous exercise, at least initially
  • Dietary
    • Missed, delayed or irregular meals
    • Dehydration
    • Alcohol consumption
    • Caffeine consumption
    • Specific foods:
      • Chocolate
      • Citrus fruits
      • Cured meats
      • Pickled herring
      • Smoked fish
      • Cheddar, stilton and camembert
  • Medicinal
    • Some sleeping tablets
    • Combined contraceptive pill
    • Hormone replacement therapy

Your headache and migraine questions, answered

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor

See a doctor about a headache when the following is true:

  • Your headaches keep coming back
  • Painkillers make no difference on how your headache feels
  • Your headache suddenly gets worse
  • You feel your headache at the front or side of your head – a sign which indicates it could be a migraine or a cluster headache instead
  • You feel sick, vomit and/or find excessive light or noise painful alongside your headache
  • Your headache is accompanied by other symptoms not mentioned here, for example numbness in your arms or legs

See a doctor about a migraine when the following is true:

  • When you have migraines on a regular or frequent basis
  • When your migraine symptoms are severe

Call 999 when the following are experienced alongside your headache:

  • Your jaw hurts when eating
  • You have blurred or double vision
  • Your scalp feels sore

Call 999 when the following are experienced alongside your migraine:

  • Paralysis or weakness in either arm or side of the face
  • Slurred or garbled speech
  • Severe pain unlike anything experienced before
  • High temperature, stiff neck, mental confusion, seizures, double vision and a rash

Over-the-counter medications like paracetamol or ibuprofen are the typical treatment options recommended for headaches.

For migraines, however, there are a number of treatments available for different aspects of a typical migraine’s symptomology:

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor