Headache or Migraine? How You Know the Difference – Axon Optics

Headache or Migraine? How You Know the Difference

Many of us have experienced a headache at some point during our life and can recognize the signs and symptoms with ease. But, how do you determine if you’re dealing with a headache or a migraine? How do you tell if you’re suffering from a migraine?  The International Headache Society (IHS) publishes a classification guide that helps doctors diagnose migraines and headaches.  We will dig into this classification in this article.

Generally speaking, you can think of headache or migraine in the following way:

Headache:  Most people will get a headache from time to time causing pain.  They are an annoyance and can put you down and out for a while. Like the image above, headaches are like a mosquito bite and are bothersome.

Migraine: A migraine attack is like a shark bite and can last for hours to days and may be associated with nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity, and sound sensitivity.  It is the third most prevalent illness in the world affecting approximately 38 million people in the U.S. and 1 billion worldwide (Migraine Research Foundation).


Primary vs Secondary Headaches:

A primary headache is distinguished from a secondary headache with regard to the underlying cause of pain. The Mayo Clinic  states “a secondary headache is a symptom of a disease that can activate the pain sensitive nerves of the head.”  Migraines are primary headaches while traditional headaches may be primary or secondary.

Do You Have a Headache or Migraine Quiz?

The following is a simple three question quiz, the ID Migraine™ screener is self-administered and you can do it in the comfort of your own home.

It was created by a team of researchers led by neurologist Dr. Richard Lipton, from Albert Einstein University and has been proven to be an effective migraine screening tool. Doctors, dentists, and other healthcare professionals around the world have used it to aid in diagnosing migraine.

While you can do this screener at home, you should share the results with your doctor.

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Migraines—Severe and Prolonged Pain

Migraines are identified as primary headaches because they do not stem from a larger issue, such as a disease or disorder. Migraines may cause pain on one side of the head or radiate all over.

Migraines are usually severe with regard to pain intensity and may prevent sufferers from engaging in everyday activities. Individuals suffering from migraines usually experience pain for a few hours at a time and may even experience pain for several days.  Migraines are classified into two main categories:

1. Migraine with aura

2. Migraine without aura

Individuals experiencing migraine with aura may see stars, lights or blurry lines or have a temporary blind spot before the headache hits, whereas those encountering migraine without aura experience two or more criteria, including nausea, vomiting or sensitivity to light, sound or smell.

While an official examination and consultation with a doctor is needed to rule out other possible causes and determine what type of migraine you are suffering from, migraines are distinguished from headaches by several common symptoms. Migraine sufferers often experience throbbing or pulsating pain; sensitivity to light, sounds or smells; vision impairments; nausea and vomiting.

Symptoms and causes vary among migraine sufferers. However, brain scans illustrate a person who suffers from regular migraines has a different brain biochemistry than those who do not. Brain imaging reveals those who experience migraines may be feeling the effects of an overactive brain.

We really like what Excedrin did to help those who don't have migraine experience what a migraine feels like:

Individuals who suffer from migraines may be genetically predisposed to developing these types of headaches. Others may suffer from migraines as a result of various triggers, including alcohol, spicy foods, stress, tension or a lack of sleep.

You may be experiencing something more serious than a headache, such as a migraine or side effect of a larger disease or disorder, if you experience:

  • Pain on the sides of your head
  • Intense pulsing, or throbbing
  • Episodes can last for days
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Flashing lights
  • Blindspots
  • Commonly recurring episodes

Lifestyle adjustments, light sensitivity treatments, surgery or medication might be necessary for treatment.


Headaches—Shorter Durations and Treated with Over-the-Counter Medication

Primary Headaches: Along with migraines, a headache may be classified as primary headaches when it is not caused by a secondary source.  The most common primary headache is known as a tension-type headache (TTH). Tension-type headaches have gone by many names:

Tension headache, muscle contraction headache, psychomyogenic headache, stress headache, ordinary headache, essential headache, idiopathic headache and psychogenic headache

Confusing? Well it kind of is, fortunately, your doctor should be up to speed on the classification and naming of headaches and the appropriate treatment of them.

The tension-type headache is the most common type of primary headache and studies peg the prevalence of it in general population in from 30 to 78% (this is actually the least studied of the primary headache disorders).  Unfortunately, the mechanisms of tension-type headaches are still unknown.

Secondary Headaches: A traditional headache is a secondary headache when it is caused by another disorder such as head trauma, neck trauma, substance abuse, infection, or variety of issues or conditions. Additionally, the severity of these issues can range from acute to severe.

Non-severe causes of secondary headaches include acute sinusitis, dehydration, hangovers, ear infections and dental problems. Severe causes of headache pain can include everything from blood clots to aneurysms.

Most people have experienced secondary headaches, especially if you’ve had the flu, a sinus infection or a cold. Some common signs of a headache are:

  • Pain around the forehead
  • A mild, dull pressure
  • Pain is incidental, non-recurring
  • Typically short-lived
  • Not usually accompanied by other symptoms
  • Treatable with medicine, rest, and water


If you experience severe and regular headaches that prevent you from participating in daily activities, contact your doctor for a medical evaluation.  For more information and resources on light sensitivity—one of the most common side effects of migraines—download our ebook, Migraineur’s Guide to Light Sensitivity.

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