Migraine Vs Headache: Understanding The Differences

by Will Bozeman

Headaches are incredibly common. Almost everybody in the world has a headache occasionally, and they can range from mild to severe. Many people get these headaches often or even daily. However, there are many types of headaches, as well as certain conditions that cause headaches, such as migraines. Migraines are not the same thing as a regular headache. They tend to be much more severe. Yet they affect an estimated 37 million people in the U.S. Unfortunately, fewer than five percent of those people have been accurately diagnosed as having migraines.

This is because many people who suffer from migraines mistake them for regular headaches. If you’re suffering from migraines, you must be properly diagnosed. Knowing the difference between migraines and frequent headaches is necessary to treat them properly and get the relief you need.

Defining Headache Vs Migraine

Migraines are very different from regular headaches. However, many people mistakenly think a migraine is a bad headache. That’s not the case at all. While both headaches and migraines can cause pain, there are some substantial differences between the two.

What Is A Headache?

A headache is a pain or sensation in the head, usually on one side. Headaches are often caused by stress, fatigue, dehydration, or muscular tension. While headaches can be bothersome and even debilitating, they generally don’t cause other symptoms. There are many different kinds of headaches that are caused by different things and that cause a unique kind of pain. These include:

  • Tension Headache: Tension headaches are the most common type. They are caused by muscle tension in the neck and head and often feel like a tight band around your forehead or temples. They can be mild to severe and usually last a few hours.
  • Sinus Headache: Sinus headaches result from inflammation and pressure in the sinuses. Sinus headaches are often accompanied by a runny nose, nasal congestion, and/or sore throat. They can cause pressure and pain in the face and the head. Seasonal allergies, the common cold, and a deviated septum can all contribute to sinus headaches.
  • Cluster Headache: Cluster headaches are characterized by intense, sharp pain occurring on one side of the head. The pain can last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours and often occur in clusters, meaning several of them happen in a row or over a short period. Cluster headaches are a chronic condition and can be highly debilitating.

What Is A Migraine?

A migraine is far more severe than a common tension headache. It can be debilitating, causing intense pain on one side of the head, forehead, or temple. The underlying cause of migraines isn’t known, but genetics, environmental factors, and hormones all likely play a role. Migraines are usually accompanied by other symptoms like nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or sound, and vision changes. Migraines can last a few hours to several days and tend to come in cycles or clusters.

How Migraine Differs From A Headache

A headache is essentially just that — an ache in your head. A migraine isn’t a headache; it’s a condition. Furthermore, a headache is just one of the symptoms of a migraine. In fact, the headache is typically the last symptom to show up in a migraine. This is why it’s important to note that migraines are not just bad headaches but rather a complex neurological condition. A migraine can cause a wide variety of additional symptoms that, combined, can be incredibly debilitating. These symptoms include the following:


Dizziness is a common symptom of migraine. This can range from feeling lightheaded to having a spinning sensation, resulting in difficulty standing or walking.

Extra sensitivity to light, sound, and/or smells

Sensitivity to light, sound, and smells are often among the first signs that a person is having a migraine. People with migraines frequently experience sensitivity to bright or flashing lights, loud noises, and strong odors like perfumes or certain foods. This sensitivity can last for the duration of the migraine.

Extreme Fatigue

Migraines can cause extreme fatigue and make it difficult to do even simple tasks. People with migraines often feel exhausted and need to rest, even after the migraine has passed.


Nausea can occur with a migraine and can last throughout its duration. In addition, nausea can sometimes happen due to the other symptoms accompanying the migraine. For example, the severity of the headache combined with dizziness and sensitivity to light can cause nausea.


If the person with the migraine is experiencing severe enough nausea, vomiting can occur. As with nausea, this may be due to other migraine symptoms.

Are Headaches Always Migraines?

No, headaches are not always migraines. A headache is a symptom of a migraine; however, certain types of headaches, such as sinus headaches and cluster headaches, are not symptomatic of a migraine. Additionally, migraines are not the only condition that can cause headaches. Other conditions, such as infections, colds, and fevers, can also result in headache symptoms.

Other Migraine And Headache Distinctions

Besides the symptoms that distinguish migraines from regular headaches, there are a few other distinctions. The following are a few additional ways that you can tell a migraine apart from a headache:


As mentioned, there are several types of headaches (such as tension and sinus headaches). Likewise, there are also several types of migraines. The following are some examples of the different types of migraines:

  • Migraine with aura: This is the most common type of migraine. It typically includes visual disturbances like seeing flashes of light or wavy lines.
  • Migraine without aura: This type of migraine does not include the visual disturbances associated with migraine with aura.
  • Retinal migraine: Retinal migraines cause vision disturbances in one eye, such as blind spots or temporary blindness.
  • Hemiplegic migraine: This type causes temporary paralysis or numbness on one side of the body.

Location Of Pain

Migraines often cause pounding, pulsing pain on one side of the head. This pain is typically located in the temples, forehead, or behind the eyes. Other headaches, such as tension headaches, can cause more generalized pain across the entire head. However, the specific location of the pain (and type of pain) usually depends on the type of headache or migraine that you have.

Intensity And Duration Of Pain

The intensity and duration of the pain are two of the best ways to tell a migraine apart from a regular headache. Migraine headaches tend to be more intense and longer-lasting than other types of headaches. 

Migraine pain can range from moderate to severe, and can last for several hours or even days. In contrast, regular headaches typically last for a shorter period of time and are usually less intense. If the headache you’re experiencing is severe to the point of debilitating and lasts for a long time, there’s a chance that it’s a migraine.


Migraine and headache diagnosis can be difficult, as there are many possible causes of headaches. Additionally, migraines can easily be misdiagnosed as other types of headaches. To properly diagnose a migraine or headache, a doctor will typically ask about the type and length of the pain and any associated symptoms. They may recommend an MRI or CT scan to check for other causes of the pain as well.

Common Treatment Options

There are various ways that you can treat headaches and migraines. However, although pain management is possible, curing migraines is not since the underlying cause of migraines is not known. That being said, the following are some of the standard treatment options that are available for both headaches and migraines:

Over-the-Counter And Prescription Medications

Normal tension headaches are often treated using over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen, aspirin, or acetaminophen. However, many doctors will prescribe stronger medications for patients diagnosed with migraine headaches. These can include triptans, ergotamines, and anti-nausea medications. At Neuragenex, we do not recommend pain medications to treat headaches or migraines, as they may lead to side effects depending on the medication.

Lifestyle Changes

Making specific lifestyle changes can also help to reduce the frequency and intensity of migraines and headaches. These changes can include getting adequate sleep, reducing stress, and avoiding migraine triggers like certain foods or environmental factors. Additionally, regular exercise can help to reduce muscle tension that may contribute to headaches.

At Neuragenex, we provide lifestyle counseling as a critical component of our whole-person approach to pain management. As such, we can provide guidance on how to make healthy lifestyle choices that may reduce the frequency of headaches and migraines.

TENS Therapy

TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) therapy is a non-invasive treatment solution that involves using low-voltage electrical currents to stimulate the nerves in the head and neck, thus providing pain relief. It achieves this by blocking pain signals from reaching the brain and by increasing endorphins, which are natural painkillers. Not to mention, the massaging effect of the TENS device can help to relax tense muscles in the head, neck, and shoulders.

TENS therapy can provide temporary pain relief for both headaches and migraines and is a safe treatment option with few side effects. However, it’s important to note that like pain medications, TENS is more effective at providing short-term pain relief and may not provide long-term relief.

How We Approach Migraines And Headaches

Our Neuragenex protocol involves a Neurofunctional Pain Management approach, which means that we will take a drug-free, non-chiropractic, non-invasive approach to treating chronic headaches and migraines. Our protocol involves the following:

  • Electroanalgesia: Although TENS therapy can provide short-term pain relief for some patients, it’s not always effective, especially when providing long-term results. This is because TENS therapy uses low-pulse electrical currents. At Neuragenex, we use electroanalgesia therapy, which is an FDA-cleared electrical stimulation therapy that uses high-pulse currents that are more powerful and can penetrate deeper into the tissue to provide longer-lasting pain relief.
  • IV therapy: IV therapy involves infusing the body with vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that may help reduce inflammation and boost overall health. Additionally, IV therapy can help hydrate the body, which is essential for headaches and migraines since they can be triggered by dehydration.
  • Lifestyle counseling: As previously mentioned, we also offer lifestyle counseling as part of our whole-person approach. We believe that long-term pain relief requires more than just addressing the symptoms at hand, which is why we strive to treat the whole person, not just the symptoms. Through lifestyle counseling, our medical team can provide guidance on how to make lifestyle changes that may help reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches and migraines.

The Right Diagnosis Leads To The Right Head Pain Relief

If you’re suffering from severe headaches regularly, you should get your condition properly diagnosed. If you’re suffering from migraines, the right treatment is critical to ensure effective pain relief and prevent further episodes. At Neuragenex, we take a comprehensive approach to treating chronic migraine pain and headaches, focusing on lifestyle changes and non-invasive treatments and therapies that may help manage your pain. With the right diagnosis and treatment plan, you can find long-term relief from headaches and migraines.

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