Health & Medicine

Understanding the difference between headaches and migraines

Dr. Nicole Everman is with KentuckyOne Health Neurology Associates
Dr. Nicole Everman is with KentuckyOne Health Neurology Associates

More than 45 million Americans a year suffer from headaches — mild or severe pain that typically occurs on both sides of the head —according to the National Headache Foundation. In addition, more than 38 million Americans suffer from migraines — intense or severe headaches that can interfere with daily activities. Knowing the difference between the two is important when determining the treatment and medicine you will need to alleviate the pain.

Headaches are unpleasant pains that typically occur in the forehead, temples and back of the neck, and they can last from a short amount of time to several days. There are many types of headaches. The most common type of headache is a tension headache, which can be triggered by stress, anxiety and muscle strain.

There are two types of tension headaches: an episodic tension headache and a chronic tension headache. An episodic tension headache can include mild to moderate pain in the front, top or sides of the head. The pain is typically gradual and often occurs in the middle of the day, less than 15 days a month.

A chronic tension headache occurs more than 15 days a month, and the pain comes and goes throughout the day. Those experiencing a chronic tension headache might also have chronic fatigue, headache upon waking, irritability, mild sensitivity to light or noise, and general muscle aching.

The most severe form of headache is a migraine, which includes pain that can affect the entire head. Those experiencing a migraine may suffer from blurred vision, nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite, paleness, fatigue, dizziness, bright flashing dots or lights, moderate to severe sensitivity to light, noise and sound, or a visual disturbance called an aura. Migraine headaches can be hereditary, but they also can be triggered by diet, stress, menstruation and environmental changes. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, half of all migraine sufferers have their first attack before age 12.

To treat headaches and migraines, over-the-counter pain relievers including acetaminophen, aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen are initially recommended. It is important not to take over-the-counter medications more than two or three times a day without discussing it with your physician, because you could develop worsening headaches known as medication-overuse headaches. Migraines might require a doctor’s prescription for preventive headache medicine or pain-relieving medicine.

A neurologist will diagnose a migraine based on medical history, family history of migraines, symptoms, and a physical and neurological examination. If the condition is unusual or suddenly severe, the physician might recommend additional tests to rule out other causes, such as a tumor, an infection, or brain damage or bleeding. These tests could include blood tests, magnetic resonance imaging, spinal tap, or a computerized tomography scan.

If you experience severe headaches, lifestyle changes might help decrease the frequency. Get at least seven or eight hours of sleep, limit caffeine to less than 250 mg a day, get regular exercise, and stay well hydrated. If headaches or migraines continue, consult your physician for an examination.

Dr. Nicole Everman is with KentuckyOne Health Neurology Associates.