Headache vs Migraine

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13 August 2019

Lady at her desk rubbing the temples of her forehead
Most of us have popped a painkiller to relieve a headache at some point, but we all experience pain differently and, when it comes to this condition, it’s important to note there’s no such thing as a ‘regular headache’, and “a headache is simply any pain in the head,” as Dr Robert Cowan, Clinical Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University Medical School and a member of the Best Doctors network of global specialists, explains.

“Head pain is often subjectively reported on a scale of 1-10 or 1-3 (mild-moderate-severe), however duration, frequency and and a patient’s worst symptoms are important when evaluating a headache,” says Dr Cowan.

It’s likely you’ll have different headaches throughout your life, so knowing how they differ is helpful (see table: Headaches at-a-glance).

“The International Classification of Headache Disorders identifies the characteristics of more than 150 primary headache disorders and secondary headache disorders,” Dr Cowan continues. “Primary headaches, such as tension-type headache or migraine, often have no underlying cause.”

Secondary headaches can be caused by several things including, but not limited to, infection, accident or trauma to the head or neck, or facial pain from a disorder to the head, neck, ears, sinus, teeth or mouth.

What are the most common headaches?

The most prevalent type of primary head pain is tension-type headache. “This is mild to moderate pain and can be improved – or not worsened – with exercise,” explains Dr Cowan. On the other hand, migraine has specific symptoms in most sufferers. “The most common disabling headache is migraine, which is moderate to severe pain, with nausea or vomiting or the combination of light and sound sensitivity, and often worsened by exercise,” adds Dr Cowan.

Unfortunately, migraine is very common – in fact, it’s the leading cause of lost work time in Australia. The most affected group? Women. Seventy-one percent of sufferers are women – 86 percent of them working age. Neurologists and headache specialists believe this is due to hormones and women experiencing more hormone fluctuations than men. Boys are said to have more migraines than girls before puberty, however the statistics reverse once girls start their period.

How do you manage headaches?

Like with most persistent medical conditions, frequent headaches should be discussed with your doctor. “This conversation should start with the patient’s primary caregiver but if they’re not comfortable diagnosing or treating, they should refer the patient to a general neurologist or headache specialist,” advises Dr Cowan. And no matter the headache, the plan should be the same. “Management begins with a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan regardless of what type of headache presents,” explains Dr Cowan.

Regarding migraine, there are a number of general ways to manage or prevent pain. “Triggers vary, but avoidance of identified triggers is one strategy to avoid migraine attack,” suggests Dr Cowan. “Another is to engage in lifestyle changes that reduce susceptibility to migraine, such as regular exercise, sleep and meal schedules. And there are medications designed specifically to help both ease migraine symptoms and reduce a patient’s susceptibility to migraines,” explains Dr Cowan.

Are there any cutting-edge treatments?

Migraine pain – and other severely painful headaches – can be very distressing for sufferers, who would likely jump at the chance for a magic pill. While it might not be that easy, there’s hope. “The field of headache medicine is growing rapidly, and developments are emerging regularly,” says Dr Cowan. “Treatments are becoming more targeted and effective, with fewer side effects and better outcomes,” says Dr Cowan.

Headaches – at – a – glance

Primary headaches are generally split into three categories – tension-type, migraine, and trigeminal autonomic cephalagias (TACs). Use the following comparison table as a guide, rather than as a self-diagnosing tool, so you’re armed with information before speaking to your GP. Dr Cowan also suggests a free online headache questionnaire, which may help.

Table detailing the symptoms and triggers of headaches and migraines

About Best Doctors

With an eligible policy from MLC Life Insurance, you and certain of your family members can access Best Doctors – a service which connects you with a network of more than 50,000 leading medical specialists from Australia and around the world for a second medical opinion when you need it most, helping to ensure you have the right diagnosis and treatment plan. Learn more about Best Doctors.

References

  1. https://ichd-3.org
  2. https://www.georgeinstitute.org.au/media-releases/major-new-migraine-trial-could-bring-relief-to-millions-of-sufferers
  3. https://headacheaustralia.org.au/what-is-headache/prevalence-and-cost-of-headache/
  4. http://promyhealth.org/headache/
  5. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/headache 
  6. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/ConditionsAndTreatments/headache-migraine
  7. https://headacheaustralia.org.au/headachetypes/cluster-headache/
  8. https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/migraine-what-is-it/more-than-just-a-headache/
  9. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322767.php
  10. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/04/16/150525391/why-women-suffer-more-migraines-than-men 
  11. https://headacheaustralia.org.au/migraine/migraine-a-common-and-distressing-disorder/

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