How to Tell If You’re Dealing With a Bad Headache or a Migraine

Headaches are frustrating, but migraines are debilitating. Although the two resemble each other, there are actually some key ways to tell them apart.

What is a headache, and why do we get them?

Your brain can’t feel pain. A headache actually occurs when pain signals come from the surrounding tissue, blood vessels, and nerves. The root of a headache depends on the type it is (rebound, tension, cluster, etc.) but headaches are often the result of stress, medication, dental issues, or sinus problems. Experts know more about headaches today than they did years ago, but they still remain somewhat of a medical mystery. Doctors actually aren’t sure why we get them.

What is a migraine?

Headaches are not well understood, and unfortunately, migraines aren’t either. Doctors still aren’t sure what causes a migraine, but they believe migraines stem from problems with nerve pathways. (It was once thought migraines stemmed from blood vessel problems.) Migraines are more than just headaches. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, a migraine is an “extremely incapacitating collection of neurological symptoms.” A migraine usually includes a severe throbbing pain on one or both sides of the head, and unlike headaches, migraines can be genetic.

While most headaches only last a little while, migraines can last up to three days. They often include additional symptoms like vision problems, nausea, and sensitivity to light. Numbness in the face or extremities is also common.

A migraine’s additional symptoms set it apart from a regular headache

It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between a headache and migraine. Cluster headaches, for example, can resemble the sharp, throbbing pain of a migraine. It’s often the other symptoms associated with migraines that help set it apart. Headaches don’t typically come with vision, nausea, and sensitivity problems. (Although sometimes sensitivity to light can accompany a headache.) For the most part, telling the difference between a headache and migraine is easy: If it’s a headache that affects more than just your head, it’s probably a migraine.

Migraines aren’t treatable, but you can subdue their pain

There is no cure for chronic migraines, but you can take action to reduce their effects. Medications will likely give you the best success when it comes to warding off migraines, but if that doesn’t do as much as you thought it would, there are other steps you can take. Turn off the lights to help with eye sensitivity. Try alternating between cold and hot compresses on your head and neck. Drink caffeine in moderation to alleviate some of the pain, and remember to get plenty of sleep.

Sometimes, brain aneurysms can be mistaken for headaches or migraines

Headaches and migraines are usually harmless, but in some rare cases, it can be more than just harmless pain. Occasionally, severe head pain can signal a brain aneurysm, which is a blood vessel in the brain that fills with blood. If it ruptures it can cause serious brain trauma or death. Along with a sudden, severe headache, you might also experience dilated pupils, weakness, and difficulty speaking with a brain aneurysm. Although some symptoms, like nausea and blurred vision, can resemble a migraine, if you don’t typically get migraines or have any of those additional symptoms, seek medical help immediately.

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