Migraines vs. Headaches: What’s the Difference?

In comparison to the average headaches, individuals with migraines often describe them as the “worst” headache they’ve ever had.

Below, Vancouver family physician, Dr. Ali Ghahary, talks about the difference between headaches and migraines, and what treatment options are available.

The average headache is characterized as mild to moderate pain and aching. Common spots of the head where this pain is most prevalent include the forehead, the temples, and the back of the neck. An average headache can last as little as 30 minutes to a few hours, and there are many different types of headaches that one can develop, with the most common being tension headaches. Tension headaches can be triggered by things like muscle strain, stress and anxiety, and can be reoccurring if those underlying conditions are left untreated. Cluster headaches are also common. Unlike the average headache, however, cluster headaches can occur more frequently and tend to come in cycles, followed by headache-free periods. Cluster headaches are common in adolescents but can occur at any age. You may also have heard the term sinus headaches, which happen as a result of a common cold due to nasal congestion, or sinus infections; and lastly, thunderclap headaches. A thunderclap headache causes severe pain, comes on suddenly, and is usually the result of a major medical emergency such as a brain aneurysm or stroke. If you develop what you think might be a thunderclap headache or are experiencing signs of a stroke, you should call 911 immediately as it could be a matter of life or death.

Migraines are a much more severe type of headache and usually come with many other symptoms such as auras (i.e. seeing spots, flashing lights, etc.), sensitivity to light, sensitivity to sound, nausea and vomiting. To-date, an estimated 2.7 Canadians say they’ve been diagnosed with migraines, and they are becoming more and more prevalent in society today.

A migraine can be triggered by a number of things, including stress, alcohol, certain smells or foods, as well as certain medications (such as oral contraceptives.) A migraine can be so severe that it can impact one’s quality of life – making them miss work, school, or social activities. It’s also not uncommon for migraine sufferers to wind up in the emergency room due to the severity of the pain. For many, the only way to get rid of or reduce the pain of a migraine is to sleep in a pitch-black room and to make sure all windows, blinds and doors are shut. As sound can also be a trigger for migraines, some individuals even have to wear noise-cancelling headphones.

While most headaches will go away with over-the-counter treatment such as Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen, migraines can be much more difficult to treat. In order to prevent migraines from occurring, Dr. Ali Ghahary may suggest patients take preventive measures such as changing their diet, avoiding known triggers, and reducing stress. As nausea is a common symptom that occurs with migraines, Dr. Ghahary recommends taking Gravol. If Gravol is not helpful then you may require a stronger, prescription-strength medication to help reduce the nausea. As for treating the actual migraine, many common medications used to treat depression and seizures are also now commonly used in the treatment of migraines, but it may take some time before you know which medication is best suited for you.

More information can be found on migraines and headaches by following Dr. Ali Ghahary on Twitter at @DrAliGhahary and via the Canadian Headache Society.