Migraine Vs Headache: When to See a Doctor

March 22, 2023 | Brain and Spine Specialists

Do you suffer from headaches or migraines? If so, it’s likely that you have found yourself wondering what the differences between these two common ailments are—and when to seek medical help. While they may seem similar, there are key distinctions that should be considered. In this blog, our expert team of brain and spine specialists will take a closer look at both headaches and migraines, provide tips for identifying which condition you might be dealing with, and explain when to consider seeking medical advice for either issue.

Commons Symptoms of a Migraine Vs a Headache

A headache and a migraine can often be misunderstood as one and the same. It is important to pay attention to the difference between the two because each has a distinct set of symptoms. The difference between a usual headache and a migraine includes the intensity of the pain, level of disability, length of time for pain duration and accompanying symptoms. Migraine headaches tend to cause an intense throbbing or pulsing sensation that can last from four hours up to three full days and usually affect only one side of the head. Other common symptoms beyond just an intense headache include nausea and sensitivity to light, amongst other signs including changes in vision quality, vomiting, neck stiffness, lack of concentration and sound sensitivity. On the other hand, headaches tend to feel more like steady pressure on both sides of the head with very mild additional symptoms such as occasional dizziness or constricted blood vessels in the face resulting in heat radiating off the face. It is essential to become familiar with your own body’s signals when it comes to distinguishing between your everyday headache and potentially debilitating migraines.

Migraine Symptoms

  • Throbbing or pulsating pain: This type of pain may feel like a pounding sensation in the head and can be quite intense. It is often focused on one side of the head but can sometimes occur on both sides.
  • Moderate to severe intensity of pain: Migraines are typically more painful than regular headaches and can be debilitating.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting: Many people with migraines experience gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea or vomiting. This can sometimes make it difficult to keep food or medication down.
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, or smells: This is a hallmark symptom of migraines and can be quite severe. Exposure to bright lights, loud noises, or certain smells can make the headache worse.
  • Visual disturbances: Some people with migraines experience visual disturbances before or during the headache, such as seeing flashing lights, blind spots, or zigzag lines. This is known as an aura and can be quite frightening.
  • Tingling or numbness: Some people with migraines experience tingling or numbness in the face or limbs, which can be a sign of neurological involvement.
  • Difficulty speaking or concentrating: Migraines can affect cognitive function, making it difficult to speak or think clearly.

Headache Symptoms

  • Dull or aching pain: Headaches are typically described as a dull, achy sensation in the head. The pain may be localized to one area or feel more diffuse.
  • Mild to moderate intensity of pain: Headaches are usually less severe than migraines and may be described as a “pressure” or “tightness” in the head.
  • No nausea or vomiting: While some people with headaches may experience mild nausea, it is not typically a prominent symptom.
  • No sensitivity to light, sound, or smells: Headaches do not typically cause sensitivity to light, sound, or smells.
  • No visual disturbances or neurological symptoms: Headaches do not typically cause visual disturbances or neurological symptoms like tingling or numbness.
  • May be relieved with over-the-counter pain medication or rest: Many headaches can be managed with over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen and may resolve with rest or sleep.

Potential Migraine Conditions

Migraine headaches can be triggered by specific triggers, including certain foods, alcohol and sleep disturbances, while general headaches may regularly occur without any identifiable cause. Migraine occurs more often in women, and research indicates that migraine with aura symptoms can often be linked to various medical conditions such as depression, stroke, epilepsy and heart disease, which are not typically associated with headache conditions. It’s important to recognize the difference between migraine and headache symptoms in order to ensure safe treatment plans.

Treatment Options For Relieving Migraines

Treatment options for relieving migraines vary greatly and depend on how long a migraine lasts, how often you experience them, their severity, and whether or not they are accompanied by an aura. Depending on all these factors, treatments may include taking over-the-counter or prescription medications to relieve symptoms, lifestyle changes such as reducing stress and getting regular exercise, avoiding trigger foods or activities, or finding state-of-the-art treatments, including biofeedback, radiofrequency ablation procedures and Botox® injections. Your doctor may also prescribe intravenous infusions and magnetic stimulation to provide further relief. It is important to discuss treatment options with your board-certified neurologist to find the best medication or combination of treatments tailored to your particular needs.

When to Seek Medical Attention For Chronic Migraine Pain

If you’re suffering from migraine pain, it’s important to note how often and when these headaches occur. Chronic migraines, which occur 15 or more days out of a month, are something that should not be ignored as they can be linked to other medical issues. If your chronic migraine comes with other symptoms or any change in sight or motor skills, it is imperative to seek medical attention. Be proactive when looking for relief, and don’t wait until the migraines become completely unmanageable. Consider speaking with our Brain and Spine Specialists about your symptoms so that you can create a plan for managing them more effectively.