A Migraine or Headache – What’s the Difference?

Chances are, everyone has experienced a headache at least once in their life. However, some people suffer from chronic headaches or even migraines. While a tension headache is more common and usually lasts a few hours at most, a migraine can last much longer and be more debilitating. In this article, we’ll discuss how you can tell the difference between these conditions and when you should see a doctor.

What is a migraine?

For starters, a migraine is not just a severe headache. It’s actually a neurological disease that often causes severe throbbing or pulsing pain over a period of several hours or even days.


Typical symptoms, in addition to intense head pain, include the following:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Pain in the face, temples or one side of the head
  • Pain in the jaw or behind the eyes or ears
  • Extreme sensitivity to light and/or sounds
  • Temporary vision loss 
  • Seeing wavy lines, flashing lights or spots

According to the Migraine Research Foundation, migraines are most common in people between the ages of 18 – 44. However, they can begin in childhood and carry into adulthood. Migraines also tend to run in families with about 90 percent of migraine sufferers having a family history of the condition.


No migraine is the same; but once a migraine begins, people can experience one or all of the following stages:

  • Prodrome. This pre-headache phase often occurs one or two days before a migraine attack and can include signs such as mood swings, neck stiffness, frequent yawning, or food cravings.
  • Aura. A form of sensory disturbances, auras can occur before or during a migraine and last about 20 to 60 minutes. Auras are usually visual in nature (such as spots, flashes of light, or blurred vision) but can also affect a person’s speech or sense of touch.
  • Headache. Once a migraine attack begins, the pain can range from mild to severe and can worsen due to physical activity, light, sounds, or smells. If untreated, a migraine can last from four hours to several days, but some people can have a migraine without developing a headache.
  • Postdrome. After the migraine pain has subsided, some people feel confused, unwell, weak, or physical/mental exhaustion; others feel a sense of euphoria.

What causes migraines?

While tension headaches are often caused by stress, fatigue, or anxiety, the exact cause of migraines are not fully known. Often migraines are brought on by “triggers,” which vary from person to person and influenced by genetic or environmental factors.

Some common migraine triggers include:

  • Excessive physical activity
  • Hormonal shifts. Women are more susceptible to migraines due to fluctuations in estrogen caused by hormonal medications, pregnancy, menopause, or before/during menstrual periods.
  • Allergies
  • Stress in the workplace or at home
  • Beverages such as certain alcohols (like wine with sulfites) or those with caffeine
  • Strong smells, including perfumes, chemicals or cigarette smoke
  • Bright lights or loud sounds
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in the weather, such as a drop in barometric pressure
  • Food additives such as artificial sweeteners or MSG

How are migraines treated?

Even though there is no specific cure for migraine headaches, the right medication and lifestyle changes can help prevent future migraine attacks or alleviate symptoms.

The general treatment options for migraines are grouped into these categories:

  • Preventative Therapies & Medications. The goal of preventative treatment is to stop or reduce the severity or frequency of migraines. Non-pharmacologic treatments include lifestyle changes and physical therapy, but certain medications may be prescribed to help manage the symptoms of chronic migraine (15 or more attacks a month). However, some medications used for the treatment of depression and high blood pressure conditions have also been found to be helpful for migraine sufferers.
  • Pain Relieving Medications. These types of medications are intended to treat migraine attacks as they occur by helping to stop the symptoms before they get worse. These therapies include over-the-counter pain relievers and prescription drugs.

Ultimately, the recommended treatments will depend on the severity, frequency, and duration of the migraine attacks; the most common or debilitating symptoms during the migraine; and a person’s current and past medical conditions. Available treatments, as well as the possible side effects of medications, should be discussed with a medical doctor or migraine specialist.

When should I see a doctor?

Even if you have a history of headaches, a migraine can be sporadic or even go undiagnosed. According to the American Migraine Foundation, less than five percent of people who suffer from migraines have been seen by a healthcare provider. Unfortunately, this means many people suffer without getting treatment for their condition. So, listen to your body and keep track of any headache changes, especially as it relates to frequency or pain.

In general, in order to rule out other serious medical conditions, you should see a doctor if you have migraines once a week or more; your headaches cause moderate to severe pain accompanied by nausea or vomiting, sensitivity to light or noise; over-the-counter pain relievers are ineffective or being used more than twice a week to treat symptoms; or your migraine attacks make you unable to work or interferes with other everyday activities.

You should seek emergency medical attention if you have an intense headache after an injury; a chronic headache that worsens after physical exertion or sudden movement; or a headache that is accompanied by seizures, trouble speaking, numbness, or double vision.


Migraines can be a serious medical condition. Coastal Orthopedics is here to help. Our pain management specialists are committed to developing the right treatment options best suited for each patient so that they can get back to living life. For more information, call us today at 941-792-1404 or request an appointment online.