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Differentiating between a migraine and a headache is not always the most straightforward process, but it’s important in order to identify the potential cause of the pain as well as the appropriate course of treatment.

Differences are typically seen in the severity of the pain, the location of the sensation, and the absence or presence of other symptoms within the body.

Most often, a migraine will include intense pulsing and throbbing sensations on one side of the head and will be accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, and visual disturbances. A headache, on the other hand, will feel more like mild or dull pressure that is being applied to the entire forehead or scalp. While headaches are unpleasant, they are typically much less severe and do not significantly impact a person’s ability to perform daily tasks.

A migraine attack progresses through 4 main stages: prodrome, aura, resolution, and headache. Prodrome lasts 1 to 2 days during which time people tend to feel irritable, fatigued, and experience an increase or decrease in appetite. Aura usually lasts up to 30 minutes and during this stage, people become sensitive to light, feel tingling or numbness in the body, and may have temporary speech disorders. The resolution stage lasts up to 24 hours and individuals often find it difficult to concentrate on daily tasks. Finally, the headache itself may last up to 72 hours, be pulsatile or lateralized, and is usually accompanied by a severe throbbing pain.

In contrast to a migraine, headaches are a universal experience and take on many different forms – from the common tension headache to the rare cluster headache and everything in between. Headaches do not share the same 4-stage process as migraines and rather than the severe throbbing pain that accompanies a migraine attack, the sensation of a headache is mild and dull. Another way to look at the relationship between migraine and headaches is this: whereas the timeline of a migraine attack includes the experience of a headache, headache sufferers do not necessarily experience migraine.

Looking at the underlying causes and the different triggers of migraine and headaches can also help explain some of the differences between these two disorders. Doctors believe a migraine is caused by changes in the blood flow in certain areas of the brain, which leads to alterations in the blood vessels of that particular region. This is often due to factors such as stress and poor sleep, as well as changes in the weather and a long list of other environmental factors. While headaches are less understood, evidence suggests that stress and emotional conflict can bring on an episode. These include insomnia, skipping meals, tension or tightness in the muscles, and depression.

In addition to the ones mentioned, there are a handful of symptoms that are present in a migraine attack, but do not appear in headaches. For one, patients who suffer from migraine with aura will experience dizziness and other aura symptoms shortly before a migraine attack occurs; these will not show up with a regular headache. Another telltale sign is the experience of symptoms leading up to and following the attack. Migraine patients will often have stiffness or pain in the neck, feelings of fatigue and depression, cravings for specific foods, and more of the sort either before or after an episode, while headache sufferers will be symptom-free in the hours prior to and following an episode.