Headache vs. Chronic Migraine Symptoms: What’s the Difference

March 28, 2022
2 min read
Headache vs. Chronic Migraine Symptoms: What’s the Difference

Headaches and migraines can be difficult to discern. Some of the worst tension headaches can seem almost identical to a migraine. However, there are some key differences. Being able to tell your headaches apart will help you find the best relief for your pain. 

Types and Causes of Headaches

Identifying the cause and source of your headaches is the first step to getting the help you need. While there are many different types of headaches, there are three that are most common.

Tension headaches are the most common of these three, most often occurring when you are stressed, are experiencing eye strain, or hunger. In tension headaches, the pain tends to spread across both sides of the head, typically starting at the back and moving forward.

Sinus headaches often occur when you’re sick or otherwise experiencing sinus pressure. They’re caused by swelling in sinus passages, which results in pain behind the cheeks, nose, and eyes. The pain is usually worse when you first wake up and when you bend forward.

Cluster headaches are very painful and often occur daily around the same time, giving them their name. Sometimes they can happen several times a day and go on for months. Cluster headaches are caused by dilation in the blood vessels in the brain due to a release of histamines and serotonin. Similar to a chronic migraine, they can be triggered by bright lights, physical activity, and altitudes.

When It’s More Than Just a Headache

How do you know when you’re experiencing symptoms of chronic migraines versus, say, a tension headache? For starters, the intense pain of migraines are often accompanied with nausea, sensitivity to stimulation (such as lights, sounds, and scents), vertigo, and extreme fatigue. It’s important to remember that migraines are a neurological disease. The changes in the brain activity affect the blood flow in the brain and the surrounding tissue, so it makes sense it would have unique symptoms.

Migraines generally occur in four unique phases. The first phase, also known as the prodrome phase, is also referred to as the pre-headache phase. This phase generally occurs several hours or even days before the migraine begins, causing neck stiffness, mood swings, and food cravings.

The phase after the prodrome phase is the aura phase, which causes sensory disturbances before a migraine. Auras can affect someone’s senses, such as their vision, touch, or speech. Someone experiencing an aura phase may experience blind spots that pass over time, slurred speech, or numbness. Not everyone who experiences migraines will experience aura migraines.

The third and penultimate phase of the migraine phases is the headache phase. This is the phase most people are familiar with. The headache can range from mild to severe. This phase can be worsened by lights, sounds, and smells. Some people can have a migraine without developing a headache.

The final phase of a migraine is a postdromal phase. This is when the pain has finally subsided. You may feel exhausted, confused, or unwell during this phase.

Causes of Migraines

Another key difference between headaches and migraines is the source. Headaches are fairly easy to identify the source of. Migraines, on the other hand, have common triggers but no one cause. While triggers change from person to person, some common ones include hormonal shifts, allergies, family history and genetics, and even environmental factors such as stress, certain foods, smells, changes in weather, lack of sleep, and certain foods. 

When to See a Doctor

If you are concerned about your headaches, or are concerned you may be experiencing chronic migraine symptoms, you may want to consider seeing a doctor. At BASS Medical Group, your care is our top priority. Call (925) 350-4044 to schedule an appointment today.