Headaches vs. Migraines

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If you have trouble getting rid of frequent headache pain, it might be because you’re using the wrong type of treatment. Not all headaches are the same.

Headaches can be divided into primary and secondary categories:

  • primary headaches include migraines, tension headaches, and cluster headaches;
  • secondary headaches are the symptoms of a primary issue, such as an illness, like a sinus infection, injury such as head trauma, or medication overuse, the most common cause of secondary headaches.

Here’s a simple breakdown to determine whether you’re suffering from a migraine or other type of headache:


  • Migraine

The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks migraine as number 19 among all diseases causing disability. Migraines usually begin in puberty and are believed to be caused by the release of inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessels in the head. It’s this inflammation that causes pain.

Common factors associated with Migraine:

  • Moderate to severe headache pain
  • Nausea
  • Pulsating pain on one side of the head
  • Physical activity aggravates pain
  • Lasts a few hours or 2-3 days
  • Attacks occur once a year or once a week

Read more about Migraine Treatment & Prevention >

  • Tension-type headache (TTH)

Tension-type headaches are the most common primary headaches and are usually episodic (experienced by 70% of sufferers) or chronic (experienced by only 1-3%). It’s believed TTH are stress-related or associated with musculoskeletal problems in the neck.

Common factors associated with TTH:

  • Begins in puberty and affects three women to every two men
  • Episodic attacks usually last a few hours but can last several days
  • Chronic can be unremitting and is much more disabling than episodic
  • Presents with pressure or tightness around the head
  • This pressure or tightness can spread into or from the neck

Need help with tension? Read Stress Relief: Try Meditation or Yoga >

  • Cluster Headache (CH)

The least common form of headache, CH affects fewer than 1 in 1,000 adults but is more common in men than women (6:1). Unlike other forms of headaches, CH tend to appear first in in people who are in their 20s or older.

Common factors associated with CH:

  • Attacks come in clusters, with each headache lasting a brief amount of time
  • Clusters can last days or months
  • Pain is extremely severe
  • Pain is usually focused on one side of the head, usually around the eye with tearing and redness, runny or blocked nose, and drooping eyelid

Learn more about Cluster Headaches: What Is a Cluster Headache?


  • Medication-Overuse headache (MOH)

Because MOH are caused by chronic use of medication to treat headaches, they’re classified as secondary headaches (caused by a primary condition or cause such as illness or injury). MOH are the most common types of secondary headaches and affect more women than men.

Common factors associated with MOH:

  • Oppressive
  • Persistent
  • Usually worse upon awakening

Learn about Feverfew for Migraines >

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