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:
- Identifying and avoiding migraine triggers
- Taking an over-the-counter riboflavin supplement
- Following courses of migraine prevention medication
- Trying courses of acupuncture, 10 sessions of which over 5-8 week periods have described as beneficial by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence
What causes headaches and migraines?
The most common causes of headaches are:
- Having a cold or the flu
- 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)
- Poor quality sleep
- Irregular sleep patterns
- Neck or shoulder tension
- Jet lag
- Low blood sugar
- Strenuous exercise, at least initially
- Missed, delayed or irregular meals
- Alcohol consumption
- Caffeine consumption
- Specific foods:
- Citrus fruits
- Cured meats
- Pickled herring
- Smoked fish
- Cheddar, stilton and camembert
- Some sleeping tablets
- Combined contraceptive pill
- Hormone replacement therapy
Incredibly common pain in the head, for instance behind the eyes, or at the back of the head.
A particularly intense headache, often accompanied by nausea, sickness and a sensitivity to noise and light.
When the body reaches above 37.5ºC, a fever develops which can combine with dull, throbbing head pain.
Repeated bouts of headaches that are as bad, if not worse than migraines.
Linked to the menstrual cycle, hormone replacement therapy and the oral contraceptive pill.
Your headache and migraine questions, answered
When should I see a doctor about a headache or migraine?
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
When should I call 999 about a headache or migraine?
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
How are headaches and migraines typically treated?
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:
- Over-the-counter painkillers for the migraine itself
- Prescription triptans, another painkiller, to support the over-the-counter options
- Anti-emetic anti sickness medications for migraine sufferers who typically experience nausea alongside their migraine
- A course of up to 10 sessions of acupuncture over 5-8 weeks has been shown to be beneficial
- - Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been approved for use in the treatment of migraines by NICE, though as the NHS notes “it is not a cure…and does not work for everyone”