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Migraine VS Headache: Differences, Causes, And Symptoms

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Rachael Funnell

author

Rachael Funnell

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Writer & Senior Digital Producer

migraine vs headache symptoms

Not all migraines cause headaches and not all headaches are migraines. Image credit: Catinsyrup/Shutterstock.com

Your head aches, you feel weak, your arms are heavy. There might be vomit on your sweater already (mom's spaghetti?). You likely recognize these symptoms, but do they describe a headache or a migraine, and what’s the difference between these two ailments anyway?

Headaches and migraines are both neurological nasties, meaning they center around something going slightly awry in the brain. Where they differ is in their causes and symptoms, though they share some delightful eye-stabbing and noggin-aching side effects.

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MIGRAINE VS HEADACHE

A migraine is a neurological condition that can have certain triggers and whether or not you will experience one (or several) in your lifetime comes down to genes. If you’ve lost out in the genetic lottery and experience migraines, they will come in attacks that have distinct phases and can last for a few minutes, hours, or even days.

A migraine occurs when the brain sets off a neurochemical stadium wave that moves through the brain tissue triggering neuronal inactivation in something known as “cortical spreading depression”. The result is sustained depolarization at cell surfaces which is associated with migraine aura, cerebral ischemia — something that occurs when there isn't enough blood flow to the brain — and seizures.

MIGRAINE SYMPTOMS

The first phase of a migraine is known as the prodrome phase and it can easily go unnoticed due to its nonspecific symptoms, which can include irritability, increased urination, fatigue, nausea, cravings, and difficulty sleeping and concentrating. This can continue for a few days before the real fun begins.

The second phase is often the first noticeable sign of a migraine as an "aura" appears. An aura is a neurological disturbance that can present as blurred vision, colorful smears, flashing lights, increased blind spots or zig-zagging lines. Sound unpleasant? It is!

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But the fun doesn’t stop there. In the next phase of a migraine more conspicuous symptoms begin to emerge including tiredness, brain fog, and — drum roll please — headache! So, while not all headaches are migraines, most migraines include headaches. This pain can be mild to severe and usually is felt as a throbbing pain on one side of the head, though it can extend to the whole head, as well as the neck and shoulders.

Migraines are also often associated with nausea and vomiting. This is because the vagus nerve is affected, disrupting the normal emptying of the stomach causing pain, nausea, vomiting and even delaying the absorption of medicines that could mitigate migraine symptoms. Welp.

The final phase, known as postdrome, can also linger for a couple of days. The symptoms of postdrome range from depression, fatigue, and brain fog to euphoria. Fingers crossed for the latter, you long-suffering migraine-haver.

WHAT CAUSES A HEADACHE?

A headache is a neurological symptom that can have many different causes but the type of headache you’re experiencing can help narrow down the likely culprits. They can be split into two categories: primary a secondary.

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Primary headaches are when you have head pain that isn’t the result of a medical condition. They can include migraines, cluster headaches, new daily persistent headaches, and tension headaches.

Secondary headaches are the result of something else that’s going wrong in — or has happened to — your body. This can include injury, disease, high blood pressure, infection, congestion, a tumor, or medication.

Knowing the best treatment plan for your migraine or headache depends on your particular circumstances so it’s always best to speak with your health care provider if a new or debilitating headache is getting you down.

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.


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