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How to Tell the Difference Between Migraines and Headaches

April 19, 2022
How to Tell the Difference Between Migraines and Headaches
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Headaches are one of the most common medical complaints and can range from mild to severe. But how do you know if the pain in your head is from a headache or something more serious?
Many people struggle to differentiate between a severe headache and a migraine, a chronic headache disorder.

What is a Headache?

There are various types of headaches, which experts have classified into two main groups — primary and secondary.

Primary headaches refer to independent conditions that cause pain in the head, face, or neck. Some common primary headaches include:

  • Tension headache: a dull, throbbing sensation that affects both sides of the head. Tension headaches are often caused by stress and anxiety.
  • Sinus headache: caused by inflammation and congestion in the sinuses. This type of headache is often accompanied by other symptoms such as a fever, nasal congestion, and a sore throat.
  • Cluster headache: a rare but painful type of headache. They are characterized by a severe, throbbing headache pain that usually only affects one side of the head and often includes other symptoms such as congestion, eye problems, and nausea. Cluster headaches occur in clusters, meaning that they take place in groups or series of attacks for weeks or months.

Although tension and sinus headaches can typically be alleviated with over-the-counter pain-relievers like Ibuprofen or Aspirin, cluster headaches may require prescribed medications to help reduce or eliminate pain.

Secondary headaches occur due to another medical condition, such as:

  • Sleep disorders
  • Tumors
  • Head trauma
  • Hypertension
  • Withdrawal from medications
  • Infection
  • Stroke

What is a Migraine?

One of the most significant differences between a headache and a migraine is the sensations you feel. People who have headaches often experience:

  • Pressure and pain in different frequencies and intensities
  • Pain extending to the neck or face

People suffering from chronic migraines often experience similar signs, along with additional symptoms including:

  • Throbbing pain
  • Intense pain that lasts longer
  • Nausea
  • Light sensitivity
  • Dizziness
  • Neck stiffness
  • Seeing colored spots or floaters

Typically, migraine sufferers have more symptoms, and those symptoms can be more serious. However, it really depends on the cause of your headache. Severe headaches could also lead to symptoms of similar intensity as a migraine attack. Keeping a migraine or headache journal can help identify trends to facilitate an accurate diagnosis.

The Phases of Migraine

A migraine episode may occur in four different phases, though not everyone experiences every phase. The phases include:

Prodrome Phase. This phase begins up to 24 hours before getting the migraine. You have early signs and symptoms, including food cravings, unexplainable mood shifts, uncontrollable yawning, fluid retention, and increased urination.

Aura Phase. If you experience this phase, you might see flashing or bright lights or zig-zag lines. You may also have muscle weakness or feel like you are being touched. An aura can occur just before or during a migraine.

Headache Phase. A migraine usually begins gradually and then becomes more serious. It typically causes throbbing or pulsating pain, which is often on one side of your head. But sometimes, you can experience a migraine without a headache. Other migraine symptoms may include the following:

  • Increased sensitivity to light, noise, and odors
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Worsened pain when moving, coughing, or sneezing

Postdrome Phase. You may feel exhausted, weak, and confused after a migraine. This can last up to a day.

Causes of Migraines

While headaches usually have a traceable cause, the cause of migraines is unknown. However, there are certain triggers that tend to provoke migraines, including:

Genetics or family history: people with family members who suffer from migraines are more likely to experience migraines.

Environmental factors: external triggers that may cause migraines include weather changes, lack of sleep, elevated stress, or different types of foods.

Allergies: due to a rise of inflammation in the body, allergies can trigger migraines.

Difference Between Migraines and Headaches

Risk Factors for Migraine

Researchers and doctors have identified many factors associated with higher risks of migraines. These include:

  • being female
  • having a family history of migraines
  • mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorders
  • sleep disorders

Migraine Triggers

People who have migraines report several different factors that are associated with them. These are called migraine triggers and may include the following:

  • emotional anxiety
  • contraceptives
  • alcohol
  • hormonal changes
  • menopause


Effective treatments for headache disorders require immediate and accurate diagnoses. Unfortunately, accurately diagnosing headache disorders presents a significant challenge for individuals and their doctors, as chronic headaches can present similar head pain and other symptoms.

A doctor can diagnose headache disorders, such as migraine, based on an individual’s symptoms and medical and family history.

Treatment for Migraine


Prevention is often the best treatment for migraine. Examples of preventive techniques your doctor may prescribe:

  • changing your diet (eliminating foods and substances known to cause headaches, such as alcohol and caffeine)
  • taking prescription medications (antidepressants, blood pressure-lowering medicines, antiepileptic medications, or CGRP antagonists)
  • taking steps in reducing stress

A Word From Santos Research Center, Corp.

Whether you’re having a migraine or another kind of headache, it’s important to understand what you’re going through and what you can do about it.

If your symptoms are disrupting your daily life, if the pain is terrible, or if you don’t know what to do, get the help you need. The more proactive you are in fighting for your health and well-being, the better off you’ll be.

Ongoing Clinical Research Study on Migraine in Tampa

Despite numerous investigations on migraines, doctors still have no definitive cure that can eliminate this ailment. However, medication and lifestyle changes can make a difference.

For this reason, we work to improve the quality of life for people with migraine by attenuating or eliminating the pain and other discomforts associated with migraine episodes. Participating in our clinical research can help us advance this critical work.


Start Date: March 2021

Phase: Phase 2

Study Type: Interventional

Duration: 3 Visits

Insurance: No insurance needed

Benefits: Compensation up to $450 for time and travel


  • From 18 to 65 years of age
  • Migraine attacks, on average, lasting for 4 to 72 hours if untreated
  • Migraine headaches frequency of 2 to 8 attacks of moderate or severe pain intensity per month
  • Has at least 1-year history of migraine


  • Diagnosis of headache condition other than migraine
  • History of cardiovascular disease
  • Current use of opioids or cannabis
  • Have a current diagnosis of significant psychiatric illness

If you are interested in Paid Medical Trials at Santos Research Center, Corp., please contact us on (813) 249-9100 or visit us at 5927 Webb Rd Tampa FL 33615.

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Santos Research Center, Corp. is a research facility conducting paid clinical trials, in partnership with major pharmaceutical companies & CROs. We work with patients from across the Tampa Bay area.

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