What Is the Difference Between Headaches and Migraines?

What Is the Difference Between Headaches and Migraines?



What is the difference between headaches and migraines? The answers might not be all in your head! Headache disorders, or recurrent headaches, are among the most common medical conditions people can experience. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, nearly half of adults have had a headache in the past year.

If you are among them, you know just how uncomfortable and disruptive headaches can be. But how do you know if your head pain is related to a headache or migraine? It is not always easy to tell the difference.

Learn more about the differences between headaches and migraines to properly treat your condition and relieve your symptoms.

What Is a Headache?

The term headache refers to pain in any part of the head. Pain presents differently from person to person. It can feel like a dull ache, a sharp pain, or persistent throbbing. It can come on suddenly or hang around for hours or even days.

Depending upon the type of headache, pain can occur on one or both sides of the head, radiate across the temples, and/or cause tightness in the neck and shoulders.

Primary Vs. Secondary Headaches

The International Headache Society reports there are more than 150 different types of headaches largely divided into two categories: primary headaches and secondary headaches.

Primary headaches have their own diagnosis and are not caused by another medical condition. Ninety- eight percent of patients who go to the doctor for headache pain have a primary headache disorder.

Secondary headaches are symptomatic of another medical issue. Secondary headaches can be caused by trauma, infection, and disease.

The distinction between primary and secondary headaches is important. Effective treatment–and relief–depend on a proper diagnosis. You cannot alleviate secondary headache pain without treating the underlying condition that is causing it.

Common Types of Headaches

Now, let’s explore some common types of headaches you might experience.

Tension Headache

Tension type headaches (TTH) are the most common type of headache. They typically occur on both sides of the head and last anywhere from a few minutes up to a week or more.

Tension headache patients may experience tightness and pressure across the top of the head that kind of feels like they are wearing a tight hat or carrying a heavy burden on the head. Alcohol, menstruation, stress, lack of sleep, and not eating can bring on a TTH.

Sinus Headache

A sinus headache is caused by an infection of the hollow spaces behind the nose, cheekbones, and forehead. These spaces, or sinuses, produce mucus that builds up, encouraging germs to grow. These germs eventually this leads to infection and sinus headache pain and congestion.

The common cold and seasonal allergies may increase your chance of getting a sinus infection. Sinus headache pain is usually a dull ache behind the eyes, forehead, cheekbones, or the bridge of the nose, depending on which sinuses are affected.

Cluster Headache

Cluster headaches are much less common than sinus headaches and tension headaches which is fortunate because they are also incredibly painful.

Cluster headaches occur in cyclical patterns, or clusters, which last anywhere from weeks to months before the patient enters a pain-free remission period that can last up to a year.

Cluster headache pain generally occurs on one side of the head behind or around one eye. Intense or excruciating pain may be accompanied by redness, swelling, or dropping of the eye on the affected side. While the cause of is still unknown, they seem to follow a pattern related to the body’s biological clock.

Cervicogenic Headache

A cervicogenic headache is a type of secondary headache. It involves referred pain which is felt in the head but comes from a source in the neck. But while migraines and other headaches have neck pain as a symptom, that does not mean migraines are cervicogenic in nature.

Cervicogenic headaches are caused by a disorder of the cervical spine and/or bones, discs, or soft tissue in the upper neck or back of the head. These disorders can include fractures, tumors, infections, and arthritis.

Pain with a is often accompanied by reduced range of motion in the neck and discomfort that worsens with certain movements. Pain typically radiates on one side from the neck or back of the head up to the top of the head or behind the eye. Some patients also experience pain near the jawbone, along the cheeks.

What Is a Migraine?

A migraine is a type of neurological disease that causes a wide range of symptoms. If you have ever experienced a migraine, you know they can be more intense and debilitating compared to other types of headaches.

According to data from the American Migraine Foundation, migraines impact more than 37 million children and adults in this country. One in four households in the United States has a member who suffers from migraines. For more than 90% of migraine sufferers, symptoms interfere with work, school, and social activities.

Migraine Signs and Symptoms

Migraine symptoms can include:

  • Confusion and difficulty concentrating
  • Congested or runny nose
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Head pain that causes pounding, pulsating, or throbbing sensations
  • Head pain that ranges from moderate to severe
  • Head pain that worsens with movement
  • Hot or cold flashes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light, sounds, and/or smells

What Is the Difference Between Headaches and Migraines? Key Similarities and Differences

Because migraines and other types of headaches share some common symptoms, it is easy to see why they often go misdiagnosed. And without an accurate diagnosis, treatment is delayed.

To help you better understand your own condition, let’s look at the similarities and differences between migraines and other types of headaches.


Migraines are considered a condition in and among themselves, unlike secondary headaches which are symptoms of other health conditions.

Migraines are often treated in relation to their “triggers” or conditions that tend to bring them on. They vary from person to person, but stress, hormonal changes, lack of food or water, and weather changes are among the most widely-reported migraine triggers.

Tension headaches and migraines share many of the same precipitating triggers including stress, lack of sleep, and not eating on time.


Migraine pain is usually more severe that other types of headache pain, and it is often accompanied by other key symptoms, particularly nausea and sensitivity to light and sound.

While most headaches are unaffected by movement, migraine symptoms seem to increase with physical activity. Migraines can last anywhere from a few hours to two or three days. Migraines last longer than many headaches but can also last as long as some sinus and tension headaches.

What Is a Migraine Aura?

Unlike other headaches, many migraines begin with something called an aura. An aura is a group of sensory, motor, and speech symptoms that suggest a migraine headache is imminent. Aura signs include skin numbness or tingling, ringing in the ears, and seeing flashing lights or dot

Did You Know? In 400 B.C., Hippocrates first described visual migraine symptoms. He expressed an aura as a shining light in one eye, followed by intense pain in the temples that traveled through the entire head.

Pain Type and Location

All headaches involve some level of head pain. There are some similarities in the location and type of head pain for migraines and other types of headaches.

Someone with a cluster headache may have throbbing or pulsing similar to migraine pain. Cluster headaches and migraines also share the general location of head pain, which usually occurs on one side of the head behind or near one eye.

Pain with tension or stress headaches tends to wrap around the top of the head, as if one is wearing a tight band around their temples. Sinus headache pain is different in that it tends to develop near the affected sinuses, around the cheeks, nose, and eyes.


All headaches benefit from a multifaceted treatment plan to address triggers, relieve symptoms, and prevent future occurrences. Small lifestyle changes like avoiding trigger foods, getting more sleep every night, and staying properly hydrated can reduce the frequency of migraines and other headaches.

Over-the-counter medications including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), aspirin, and naproxen can be effective for pain reduction. Migraines and other severe headaches may benefit from triptans, and other prescription medications taken at the first onset of symptoms.

Benefits of Physical Therapy for All Types of Headaches

If you suffer from debilitating headaches, consider adding physical therapy to your holistic treatment plan.

In patients with frequent headaches, physical therapy benefits include:

Physical therapy is particularly effective for patients who experience referred pain from  cervicogenic headaches that is felt in the head but originates in the neck With treatment, patients can move their neck more easily and with less pain.

A physical therapy treatment plan for headaches may include the following:

  1. Education: Physical therapists teach patients how to identify their own individual triggers so they can avoid episodes. Headache tracking in a journal or mobile app is invaluable for helping you and your therapist identify patterns and habits that affect headache frequency and severity.’
  2. Exercise: Physical therapists utilize exercise to reduce inflammation and encourage healing. Outside of the clinic, patients use personalized home-exercise regimens to help reduce headache frequency and severity.Postural exercises, flexibility exercises, and strengthening exercises are especially beneficial for patients with cervicogenic headaches and tension-type headaches.
  3. Manual Therapy: Hands-on manipulation and mobilization can improve symptoms in patients with cervicogenic and neck-derived headaches. Many patients also tend to “tense up” and tighten their neck and shoulders during a headache. So, if poor posture or tech-neck is not the cause of your headache, it may end up being a side effect.

Physical therapy helps to relieve stiff joints and cramped muscles related to various types of headaches. Using slow, oscillating movements, quick, small movements, and neck stretches, manual therapy can strengthen the neck and loosen neck joints.

It should be noted that while physical therapy, medication, and lifestyle changes can offer a vast improvement in symptoms, severe and/or frequent headaches should always be checked out by a healthcare provider to rule out more serious underlying conditions.

Migraines and other types of headaches affect millions of people worldwide. If you are one of the millions, consider working with a physical therapist to improve your mobility and reduce your pain.

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