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How to tell the difference between a headache and a migraine

Headaches are never fun. Severe headaches can be so debilitating the sufferer is unable to function until the pain stops, which sometimes can take hours or days.

Many people assume all severe headaches are migraines, but that’s not the case. Determining whether a person has a migraine or a headache is important in knowing how to treat and manage the pain.

People who have headaches do not necessarily experience migraines, but most people who suffer from migraines also have other headaches. Migraines are typically accompanied by other symptoms such as, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and sensitivity to light and noise. Severe migraines can heighten sensitivity to the point where the victim endures excruciating pain.

The International Headache Society assigns headaches into two broad categories.

Primary or Secondary Headaches

Primary headaches are delineated by symptoms:

Secondary headaches result from other causes:

  • Head injury
  • Stroke
  • Infection
  • Drug or alcohol misuse or abuse
  • Other physical problems from sources like sinuses, teeth, nose, neck, back and eyes

Classifying pain

Does it feel like your head is imploding or exploding? Knowing how to describe the type of pain could help determine the best course of treatment.

People who describe their pain as exploding perceive a buildup of pressure feeling as if the “skull was about to split open.”

People with an imploding headache describe their pain as a clamping or stabbing sensation often accompanied with eye pain and pressure.

Prevention when possible

In the past, most treatments for migraines started after the pain began or when it reached extreme levels. Today, more efforts focus on prevention.

Migraine triggers are often hormonal, environmental or lifestyle related.

Some migraine triggers also include:

  • Birth control, menstruation or menopause
  • Stress
  • Food allergies (cheese, nitrates and aspartame can often trigger migraines.)
  • Caffeine
  • Weather or altitude changes
  • Bright lights

Once a person is familiar with their migraine triggers, he or she can obviously avoid those things whenever possible. Another method to prevent migraines is to take daily anti-migraine medication. In most cases, the drugs affect brain chemicals or blood vessel issues causing migraines.

Don’t give up

Failed attempts in finding a solution for migraine pain can be discouraging. Fortunately, there are a wide range of medications and treatments. Don’t let pain get in the way of doing things you enjoy. Finding the right pain specialist can make a world of difference in getting back to the important stuff in life.


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Dr. Alex Bigham is the owner and CEO of Novocur Pain Management Clinics and has over 18 years of healthcare experience in private practice and Ambulatory Surgical Center settings. Novocur offers advanced treatment options in a concierge type practice without the concierge price tag. Dr. Bigham appears frequently on local TV and radio programs to discuss the latest in Pain Management or related health topics.