Symptoms and Signs of Headache vs. Migraine: How to Tell the Difference

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Medically Reviewed on 3/21/2019

Doctor's Notes on Headache vs. Migraine: How to Tell the Difference

A headache is a general term that is defined as pain located in any area of the head. A migraine is a type of headache that is defined as a severe throbbing pain or pulsing sensation, most often on one side of the head, which is usually accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine pain signs and symptoms are different from other headache pains. To classify a headache as a migraine, the pain must have at least a combination of three of five features; the pain is 1) moderate to severe, 2) is pulsating, and 3) is only on one side of the head (unilateral location), and it is accompanied by either 4) nausea and/or vomiting or 5) photophobia and phonophobia whereas a headache is simply pain located in any area of the head. If a patient is having “the worst headache of my life”, the person should have 911 called and be transported to an emergency department.

There are many causes (triggers) for headaches and/or migraine headaches; some are known and some are not known. For example, trauma to the head and/or bleeding into the brain can cause severe headaches but the cause of occasional headaches that comes and goes is not clear. Although many different triggers for migraine headaches are known (stress, hormonal, strobe lights and many others), others are not. The underlying causes are not well understood and seem unique to each individual.

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Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.