What's the difference between a migraine headache and other headaches?

Isn’t a migraine just a really bad headache?


A dark room, bed, and sleep - my go-to strategy to deal with migraines. For those who have never experienced a migraine, count yourself lucky. It is a lot more than just a bad headache. So it can be difficult to understand the difference if you have never experienced a migraine. But we’ve all had headaches, at least at some point in our lives. Stressed. Headache. Tired. Headache. Sinus congestion. Headache.

Headaches can last from 30 minutes to several hours. Surprisingly, there are three common types of headaches: Tension headaches, sinus headaches, and cluster headaches.

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Tension headaches: Stress, eyestrain, and hunger are big triggers of this headache type. The pain from tension headaches is described as band-like. A band of pain spreading across both sides of the head. It often starts from the back, making its way forwards. 

Sinus headaches: Getting ill and stuff is bad enough. To make it worse, this headache strikes when you’re feeling congested. Your sinus passages in your nose swell, resulting in pain behind the cheeks, nose, and eyes. What makes the pain worse? Waking up and bending forward, exacerbates the pain. 

Cluster headaches: The reason they are called cluster headaches is that they occur in clusters. Meaning they happen on a day to day basis, usually around the same time every day. These are a very painful form of headache, and sometimes it can even occur up to several times per day. These clusters usually last for months before ending. Men are more prone to getting these cluster headaches and exercise, bright lights and even height (altitude) can trigger them. 

Top tips to help deal with your headache:  

  • Keep a water bottle handy and stay hydrated. 
  • Get some rest if you have a cold of the flu.
  • Keep calm - stress just makes it worse.
  • Try some over the counter painkillers - Ibuprofen and Paracetamol can help.


Migraines, on the other hand, are more than just headaches. Headaches are simply one symptom of a migraine. This intense headache, the throbbing pain, and pulsing sensation, only happens on one side of the head, unlike regular headaches. That is not all. They are accompanied by other unpleasant symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, visual problems, and increased sensitivity to light or sounds. They last a lot longer than headaches too - usually 4 hours to three days. The pain can get so bad it affects your daily activities. 

Luckily for me, I only experience migraines a couple of times a month. But some people can suffer from chronic migraines, getting eight or more migraine attacks each month. Though migraines are not life-threatening, they can have a significant effect on someone’s life. Repeated migraines are known to negatively impact family life, social life, and employment. 

Migraine Stages 

Migraines can go through 4 stages: prodrome, aura, attacks, and postdrome

  • Prodrome: These are symptoms leading up to the migraine attack! Constipation, mood changes, and neck stiffness are just some symptoms that might appear a couple of days before the migraine.
  • Aura: Migraines with aura are called classical migraines. Aura is a reversible symptom produced by the nervous system. Tingling sensation, visual change/loss, or hearing noise/music are common types of aura symptoms. They start gradually and can build up and last for about 20-60 minutes. 
  • Attack: We are all unique, and so are our migraines. They can last from 4 to 72 hours long. It is a pulsing or throbbing pain on one side of the head. You will feel nausea and have some sensitivity to light and sound. 
  • Postdrome: After the attack, most migraine sufferers report feeling tired, drained, and confused. However, you might be part of a different group of migraine sufferers who feel elated post-attack. 

Why do migraines happen?

To date, there is no exact cause of migraines, but there is a genetic link. Researchers have found that migraines tend to run in the family. That is the case for my family. Although just because there is a genetic link does not mean everyone in the family is at risk of a migraine. 

Women tend to be more prone to migraines. Hormones are thought to trigger this. Some women might find a link between their period and migraines. The contraceptive pill might also be associated with migraines. 

Make it stop!

Sadly, there is no cure for migraines. Most people try taking ibuprofen or paracetamol to lessen the pain, but it usually does not work, urging them to seek professional medical help. Most people find lying down in a quiet, dark room can help minimize the throbbing pain. If the migraines are debilitating and over-the-counter painkillers do not work, the doctor can prescribe you stronger medications to take on top of it, such as triptans. For those suffering from regular migraines, the doctor might try some preventative medications such as beta-blockers, topiramate, and amitriptyline to help reduce the number of migraine attacks. 



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