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Difference Between Headaches and Migraines

Approximately 37 million people in the United States suffer from migraines, and of these individuals, roughly 5 million experience at least one migraine a month. Physical pain on one or both sides of the head is usually considered a headache, but in some cases, pain that does or does not produce other symptoms could be classified as a migraine.

Because both headaches and migraines cause mild to severe pain and discomfort, questions may surface among headache and migraine sufferers regarding the differences between the two. By definition, a headache is a pain that occurs in any area of the head, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. Headaches are also generally characterized by the type of pain they cause, which is often described as sharp, throbbing, or dull.

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Migraines are similar to headaches in regard to the type of pain they produce (i.e. throbbing, pulsating, etc.), but this type of headache pain is typically more intense and located on one side of the head. In some instances, however, migraines will develop on both sides of the head. Migraines are generally different from typical headaches due to the visual and auditory disturbances that may accompany the pain, as well as nausea or vomiting. Migraines may also last from 4 to 72 hours long.

Symptoms of Migraines vs. Headaches

Symptoms vary from person to person, but according to the Migraine Research Foundation:

  • 85% of migraine sufferers experience throbbing, pulsing pain
  • 80% experience sensitivity to light
  • 76% experience sensitivity to sound
  • 73% feel nauseous

Migraines may produce an aura before or during an attack. Auras are neurological symptoms that generate visual disturbances in the form of blind spots, colored spots, flashing lights, tunnel vision, zigzag lines, or temporary blindness. Other symptoms of aura may include numbness, tingling, weakness, dizziness, or feelings of spinning.

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Headaches, on the other hand, are not accompanied by aura but can range in intensity and type. Some of the most common headaches that may cause symptoms similar to migraines include: cluster headaches, sinus headaches, and tension headaches.

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are appropriately named after the intense pain they cause in clusters or cyclical patterns. Pain may be described as burning, piercing, or constant, and like most headaches, pain is usually located on one side of the head, most commonly in a cluster behind one eye. This type of headache is considered one of the most painful and may be triggered by certain foods, hormonal changes, or stress. Avoid alcohol, nicotine, and nitroglycerin; a medication used to treat heart disease, as these may be possible triggers. Additionally, it’s important you maintain a regular sleep schedule. Researchers have found cluster headaches tend to develop with changes in sleep schedules.

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Sinus Headaches

Sinus headaches produce relatively moderate pains that are centrally located on the face, i.e. parts of the forehead, the bridge of the nose, and areas around the cheeks. As a result, symptoms may include facial swelling, fever, a runny nose, or ear pain. Patients may also experience a feeling of fullness in the ears. These headaches are usually associated with other sinus issues including allergies and sinus infections. Your risk of developing sinus headaches increases if you have a family history of migraines and headaches, or if you’re experiencing hormonal changes. Certain foods (caffeine, alcohol), odors, and inactivity may trigger a sinus headache.

Tension Headaches

Tension headaches may generate symptoms that closely resemble those of migraines but are usually different in intensity, type, and location. Symptoms of a tension headache include dull, aching head pain, pressure across the forehead and along the sides and back of your head, tenderness of the scalp, neck or shoulder pain, and chronic fatigue. Tension headaches are typically caused by stress, upper body tension, or muscle tenderness. Similar to cluster and sinus headaches, tension headaches may also be triggered by certain foods, odors, fatigue, or alcohol and caffeine consumption.

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Treatments for Migraines vs. Headaches

Treatment may vary depending on the headache type or migraine. Additionally, a combination of medications or therapies may be considered for those suffering from symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, or irritability. It’s important patients see their doctor right away if symptoms have been present for more than a few weeks.

Treatment options may include pain-relieving medications, preventative medications, or interventional pain management therapies such as occipital nerve blocks, Botox, or an innovative, minimally invasive surgical procedure called the Omega migraine procedure.

The Omega migraine procedure is a surgical procedure based on neurostimulation that provides long-lasting pain relief for those suffering from chronic migraines. Patients who have not responded to conservative or interventional treatment options for at least six months may be considered a candidate for the procedure. A board-certified, interventional pain management specialist will perform an evaluation before moving forward with a trial procedure.

During the trial period, a neurostimulator will be placed externally for several days to determine whether or not the patient will benefit from having a permanent device implanted. Patients will be encouraged to trigger their migraine as much as possible during this time to see if the implant works. Once the trial has been determined as successful and the patient is ready to receive their permanent device, physicians will implant small, undetectable wires under the skin surrounding the forehead. Once these wires are in place, they will be connected to a small, rechargeable battery, which will be implanted under the skin in the lower back or upper buttock region. The battery is designed to last up to ten years and will deliver gentle electrical pulses to prevent pain signals from reaching the brain. Talk to your pain management physician about how you may benefit from the Omega migraine procedure.

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