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Headaches vs. Migraines: Biggest Differences

min read

By Jeff Hayward

Medically Reviewed by Patty Weasler, RN

Your head is pounding again – but is it a “normal” headache (like a common tension headache) or the result of a migraine? Both can have similar symptoms but have different triggers and warning signs.

Knowing which type of headache you’re dealing with can also help you decide how to best get rid of it. Let’s take a look at 13 differences between a headache and a migraine

Defining a Headache

Headaches that are caused by tension (or something else) can be similar to migraines, but with one main difference, explains While migraines can be agitated by the slightest exertion, standard headaches are usually more “chronic and steady,” it adds.

The source explains that each type of headache can be located on either or both sides of the head, but that most people with a tension headache will complain of “a band-like tightness or pressure” in the cranium.

Defining Migraines says migraines are more than just a headache – they’re a “complex condition with a wide variety of symptoms,” with headache being one of them.

However, people with a migraine may not have the same stress triggers as those with tension headache, and some people experience an “aura” before the onset of a migraine – where there are visual disturbances or other warning signs prior to the pain.

The Pain Test

While tension headaches can have major pain associated with them, migraines are almost always “intense or severe” and can present pain in various places such as behind one eye or ear, or in the temples, explains

Migraines more often cause pain in only 1-side of the head, but can spread to both, it adds. While many people work through tension headaches at work, “A migraine headache will cause intense pain that may be throbbing and will make performing daily tasks very difficult,” explains the source.

Pinpointing the Pain

Where the pain is showing up can be a big clue whether you’re dealing with a tension headache, a migraine, or another type of headache. says tension headaches commonly occur on both sides of the head, while migraines can gravitate to one area of the head.

Meanwhile, sinus headaches are often confused with migraines, but they usually coincide with sinus infection symptoms including fever, stuffy nose, and facial pressure, adds the source.

The Lead-Up

While “regular” headaches often come on without any sort of warning, migraines can give you a heads up that they’re on their way. explains an “aura” often precedes a migraine, which is “most commonly is a visual band with a shimmering or glittering border.”

This aura can last 5 to 60-minutes, it adds. Migraine auras can differ in nature from person to person, but once you’ve experienced them a few times, you may start to recognize when to brace yourself for the storm.

Constant Hum or Beating Drum?

Another way to tell if you have a migraine or a tension (or other) headache is whether the pain is pulsating. explains that migraines are often throbbing rather than a constant pain – but this throbbing can also be present in hangover headaches and caffeine withdrawal headaches, it adds.

Meanwhile, tension headaches, which are by far the most common type, most commonly include a “dull pain that is constant instead of throbbing and feels like a tight band of pain around the head.” So distinguish whether it feels like someone is playing the drums in your head, or if it’s someone “humming” in your cranium.

Migraines: More than Headaches

While migraines cause splitting headaches that can put you out of commission temporarily, they often also cause other problems that standard headaches don’t.

For example, explains that “throbbing, pulsating pain” is present in 85-percent of migraine cases – but also very common is sensitivity to light, which occurs in 80-percent of cases. A migraine patient can also experience (in order of prevalence) – sound sensitivity, nausea, pain on 1-side, vision changes/blurred vision, aura, and vomiting, it adds. Not all migraine sufferers will have all symptoms, notes the source.

Migraines a Multi-Headed Monster

Migraines typically are divided into 2-categories – with or without the aura. But as points out, there are multiple types of migraines that are less commonly known.

For example, there’s the hemiplegic migraine, which can actually result in muscle weakness and “one-sided whole body paralysis” – although temporary, it notes. Menstrual migraines can occur in some women during their cycle, and there’s even the “abdominal migraine” – which is common in children and early teens and is characterized by severe nausea and vomiting with abdominal pain. This type of migraine doesn’t actually involve headache pain, but happens in regular intervals – and is a sign the child will develop migraines later in life, adds the source.

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Identifying Triggers

While tension headaches don’t always have a particular cause, migraines can have a variety of triggers, and pinpointing them may help you avoid them in the first place.

The Mayo Clinic explains there are several potential triggers of a migraine, including certain salty and processed foods and food additives, alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, sensory stimuli (such as bright light), changes in sleep patterns, physical exertion, environmental changes, certain medications, and hormonal changes in women.

Headache Without a Cause

While we’ve listed a number of possible recurring reasons you may be experiencing migraines, many sources point out that tension headaches can’t always simply be traced to increased tension.

However, explains the triggers of tension-type headaches (TTH) can include anxiety, emotional stress, depression, poor posture, and lack of sleep – “although the evidence for each of these (except stress) is poor,” it adds.

Differing Diagnoses

If you can’t decide whether you’re suffering from tension headaches or migraines, you should let a doctor sort it out (and seeing a doctor for recurring headaches is probably a good idea in any case).

WebMD says a doctor will ask you about your history of headaches, including how old you were when they started and how often they occur. Family history of migraines will likely also be covered, it adds. The physician will then start to rule out any possible triggers such as external stimuli, foods, or medications. There could be x-rays and other imaging tests involved, it adds.

Race Against the Pain

Since many migraines tend to show warning signs before the full symptoms appear, it may be possible to stave off a migraine before it explodes, suggests

The source says if you’ve been diagnosed with having frequent migraines, you may get a prescription for triptans, which is a pain reliever more potent than over-the-counter drugs. It adds that research has shown if triptans are taken at the first signs of a migraine (also called the prodrome stage before the aura), they can prevent the headache stage in about 60-percent of patients.

Let Treatments Go to Your Head

Knowing your enemy will help you get rid of them quicker – in this case, having a proper diagnosis from a doctor about your recurring headaches can go a long way.

We’ve already mentioned triptans, which describe as being “effective at helping reduce inflammation and decrease the swelling of the inflamed vessel, which tends to lead to decreased head pain in a relatively short time.” Botox has also been used for migraine sufferers, it adds. For tension headaches that don’t cause the same changes in blood vessels as migraines, over-the-counter pain relievers are often sufficient. Aromatherapy has shown to be effective for both headache and migraine sufferers, it adds.


Patty is a freelance health writer and nurse (BSN, CCRN). She has worked as a critical care nurse for over 10 years and loves educating people about their health. When she's not working, Patty enjoys any outdoor activity that she can do with her husband and three kids.

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