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  • Dr. Mark Freund

Migraine vs. Headache

migraine vs. headaches

Headaches of any kind can range from merely annoying to downright debilitating. The two most common forms of headaches are migraines and tension headaches. Though they often have similar causes and triggers, migraines and tension headaches vary significantly in severity and treatment. Read on to learn more about different types of headaches, how to recognize the difference between them, causes and triggers, and treatment methods.

Headache vs. Migraine Definition

Classification of headaches is relatively straightforward. There are hundreds of headache types, but most fall into one of four main groups: cluster, sinus, tension, and migraines. Here we’re going to be looking at the difference between migraines and tension-type headaches.

Tension headaches are characterized by pain that is often described as a tightly-squeezing band around your head, running from your forehead to the back of your neck. Dull, aching pain, tightness or pressure on the sides and back of your head, and tenderness in the scalp, shoulder, and neck muscles are all sure signals that you are experiencing a tension-type headache.

Tension headaches, also referred to as “stress headaches,” can be episodic or chronic in nature. Episodic headaches are just that: headaches that are intermittent in occurrence. They can last from 30 minutes to as long as a week, but no more than 15 days a month. Chronic tension headaches happen more than 15 days a month, may last hours, or become continuous.

stressed woman suffering from migraine

The pain is often described as mild to moderate. Episodic headaches may not be debilitating. However, if you have to take medication more than twice a week, they certainly impact your quality of life. Chronic headaches can definitely be debilitating, even with mild severity.

Migraine headaches can also happen if you have tension headaches, but migraines present differently. They are throbbing or pounding headaches, typically but not always on only one side of the head. Migraines are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, and movement. Some migraine sufferers report auras before onset. These auras can be visual, auditory, olfactory, or even tingling in the face or limbs, trouble speaking, or vomiting.

Migraines can be highly debilitating and isolating because it isn’t just the pain - it is the sensory stimuli on overload. Migraines cause missed work and isolation from friends and family.

Just like no two people are the same, no migraine is the same. While there are typically four phases to a migraine attack, the prodrome, aura, attack, and post-drome, not everyone experiences every phase. Some people even have so-called silent migraines, which are all the symptoms except an actual headache!

Even if someone doesn’t have prodrome or aura, they can still experience symptoms up to two days before an attack. Food cravings, mood changes, and frequent yawning, among other signs, are warnings of a coming attack. Migraine attacks can last up to 72 hours, and for most sufferers, they happen rarely. But chronic sufferers have 15 or more migraine days a month.

Even after a migraine attack, people can have a “migraine hangover” or feel wrung out, tired, or confused. They may feel like they are moving through Jell-O or just generally be unfocused. Some people also report craving sweet or overly salty foods in the post-drome period; researchers think this is due to unbalanced electrolytes.

Causes of Headaches vs. Migraines

Tension-type headaches have no known cause. Research shows that the commonly held belief that tension and stress cause muscle contraction in the neck and face holds no water. Instead, doctors think that people who get tension headaches have an increased sensitivity to pain. Stress is the most common trigger for tension headaches.

what causes headaches and migraines

The causes of migraines are still somewhat of a mystery. Genetics and family history can play a part, but so can brain structure and chemistry. Some people are sensitive to environmental changes, others to food or drink or perfume or cigarettes. The most common migraine triggers are:

  • Hormone fluctuation at puberty and menopause, during pregnancy, and during monthly cycles

  • Sleeping too much or too little

  • Stress

  • Physical exertion

  • Weather changes

  • Medication

Scientists are also studying whether fluctuating serotonin levels play a part in migraines.

Keeping a food diary can help detect dietary triggers. Some of the most common food-related causes of migraines are:

  • Food additives like MSG, nitrates, sulfites, yeast extract, and aspartame. These are found in Chinese takeout and soy sauce, lunch meats and hot dogs, red wine, canned soups, and diet or sugar-free soft drinks.

  • Alcohol, including red wine, beer, and hard liquor.

  • Caffeine and products like coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soda.

  • Dairy products like aged or soft cheeses (brie, bleu, feta), yogurt, sour cream, and buttermilk.

  • Meats that have been aged, smoked, fermented, pickled, or salted. Hot dogs, bacon, some fish like herring or sardines, sausage and salami.

  • Fresh fruits like citrus, banana, and avocado.

  • Dried fruits like raisins, apricots, and mango.

  • Beans such as fava, lima, and garbanzo beans.

  • Nuts and nut butters.

  • Soy products like tofu.

  • Vegetables with strong smells and taste, like onions and garlic.

If you use painkillers a lot, including prescription triptans and over-the-counter Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), you can get medication-overuse headaches. Similar to a rebound migraine, medication-overuse headaches happen when medication begins causing headache pain rather than relieving them. It is a vicious cycle because the instinct is to keep medicating, which just causes more pain.

Treatment Options for Migraine vs. Headaches

Treatment for headaches is a little different than treatment for migraines, though treatment for both includes prevention as well. You have to be proactive because all the medicine in the world won’t make much difference if the headaches continue to be debilitating.

chiropractic adjustments for tension headaches

In addition to Over-the-Counter (OTC) and prescription painkillers, most of the treatments for all headaches involve lifestyle changes. At Natural Care Chiropractic, we offer chiropractic adjustments and other techniques to help ease your symptoms.

Acupuncture and soft tissue work like Manual Therapy can help provide pain relief over time, improve posture, and help release tight muscles. In some cases, these techniques can actually even help your medication work better and faster, providing you with near-immediate relief. Some other non-medication ways to treat all kinds of headaches include:

Migraine treatment and prevention focus on lifestyle and diet changes to maintain health between attacks and medication to either help the pain or prevent it altogether. Here are some changes to your daily life recommended by experts:

  • Establish regular and healthy sleep patterns. Don’t sleep too little or too much, and stick to your sleep and wake schedule even on the weekends.

  • Stop smoking.

  • Exercise regularly. Walking, running, swimming, and other aerobic activities can reduce stress and help stave off tension headaches and migraines.

how to prevent headaches and migraines
  • Eat regular, balanced meals and drink plenty of water to maintain proper nutrition and hydration.

  • Limit alcohol, caffeine, and sugar.

  • Keep a headache journal or use an app to track details about your headaches. No information is too small and can help you find triggers. Things to note down include: weather changes, what you ate, any stressors, and the onset and duration of the headache. Do they happen at the same time of day? What was the weather like? Do your headaches have any sort of pattern?

If you do get a migraine, you can try these tips and tricks to ward off a full attack:

  • Lie down, or rest in a quiet, dark space.

  • Drink some water to stay hydrated.

  • If you can tolerate low temperatures, a cool, damp cloth or an ice pack on your forehead, the back of your neck at the base of your skull (or both) can provide relief.

  • Use a meditation app, play nature sounds, or even an audiobook to help you relax.

  • Avoid screens and fluorescent lights to help keep pain levels low.

If you do need medication to treat or prevent headaches, it is crucial to understand the differences. Pain relievers work after your headache has started. They can be over-the-counter or prescription, and many have restrictions regarding their frequency of use.

how chiropractic care can help with headaches

Migraine preventatives work in advance to help with the frequency, severity, and duration of migraine attacks. Chiropractic treatments have been life-changing for some people with chronic, long-lasting, or severe migraines that are unresponsive to pain relievers. Most of these treatments are generally safe and effective, but you and your chiropractor should look at all the data and choose the best course of action for your specific circumstances.

Final Thoughts

Migraines and tension headaches are prevalent. In the workplace, migraines and other headaches result in an average of three lost working days and a 40% reduction in worker productivity per month. While there is no way to cure headaches and migraines, you can take steps to alleviate many of the causes and symptoms. Nobody should suffer in pain. If you have migraines or headaches, get in touch with us at Natural Care Chiropractic to learn how we can help!


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