Is your headache a migraine? How to tell the difference

Headaches vary in how they feel and how they affect us – some are mild and achy while others can be sharp and intense. When the pain from your headache feels unbearable, you may even wonder if it’s a migraine, the most severe type of headache.

According to the American Migraine Foundation, more than 36 million Americans experience migraine headaches. But only one out of every three patients talks to their doctor about their headaches.

Identifying migraine headaches allows you to put prevention strategies in place and get appropriate treatment for your symptoms.

Read the following facts to determine whether your headache is a migraine:

Migraine symptoms often include more than just head pain

The symptoms of a migraine are more acute and widespread than that of other types of headaches. According to the American Migraine Foundation, migraines can last for days and have four distinct phases. Each phase has its own set of symptoms – many that have nothing to do with head pain.

Recognizing signs of a migraine in its early stages may help you better prepare for the headache to come. The stages of migraine include:

  1. Prodrome (preheadache): This phase can begin up to 24 hours before the migraine. Pre-migraine symptoms include food cravings, mood changes, uncontrollable yawning, fluid retention and increased urination.
  2. Aura: Approximately 25% of migraine sufferers experience auras, which are visual disturbances causing periods of blurry vision or vision loss. These symptoms can surface just before or during a migraine and may include flashing lights, blind spots or the appearance of geometric lines and patterns.
  3. Headache: A migraine headache gradually becomes more severe, causing throbbing pain often only on one side of the head. Other symptoms of this phase include:
  4. Increased pain with sudden movements such as coughing or sneezing
  5. Nausea and vomiting
  6. Sensitivity to light, smell and sound
  7. Postdrome: About 80% of people who endure a migraine experience what feels like a “migraine hangover” in the days following the headache. The symptoms leave many people feeling weak, tired and confused and may include dizziness and trouble concentrating.

Migraine headaches are not related to a separate medical condition

There are more than 300 types of headaches. Experts divide headaches into two categories based on what causes them.

Headaches resulting from a medical condition (such as a sinus infection or medication overuse) are called secondary headaches. Primary headaches are unrelated to a medical issue and result from an underlying process in the brain. Types of primary headaches include:

  • Cluster headaches, rare and severe headaches occurring up to eight times daily that cause pain on one side of the head or behind one eye
  • Migraine headaches, debilitating pain that can be chronic, occurring 15 or more days a month
  • Tension headaches, common headaches producing dull, squeezing pain on both sides of the head, often caused by fatigue, stress or muscle tightness

While migraine headaches and some secondary headaches may present with similar symptoms, if there is an underlying medical condition, the headache is likely not a migraine.

Family history, age and gender affect your risk of migraine headaches

Some people have a higher risk of developing migraine headaches. According to the Migraine Research Foundation, you may be more likely to develop a migraine depending on your:

  • Age: Migraine is most common between the ages of 18 and 44. Migraine prevalence in women peaks during childbearing years, likely due to changing hormone levels and menstruation.
  • Family history: About 90% of people who experience migraine headaches have a family history of migraines.
  • Gender: Approximately one in four women will experience a migraine in their lifetime, with 85% of people affected by chronic migraines being women.

There are common migraine triggers

If you have chronic headaches that you believe are migraines, see if you can identify what triggers your headaches. Common migraine triggers include:

  • Dehydration, which is a trigger for about one in three migraine sufferers
  • Diet, with the most common culprits including chocolate, dairy products, artificial sweeteners, caffeine, alcohol and cured meats
  • Hormones, with up to 75% of women with migraines experiencing attacks around the time of their menstrual period
  • Light, including natural, bright light and fluorescent or flickering bulbs
  • Sleep schedule, with an irregular sleep schedule making you more prone to migraine attacks
  • Stress, which triggers almost 70% of people with migraines
  • Weather changes, including storms, excessive heat and humidity and changes in barometric pressure

Most migraine attacks begin between six hours and two days following a trigger. Your primary care provider may recommend prevention strategies to help you avoid both the trigger and the migraine.

Migraine treatment includes prevention and symptom relief

While there is no cure for migraine headaches, your primary care provider can help you find relief. Your treatment for migraines may include:

  • Hormone therapy, for women whose migraines may be linked to their menstrual cycle
  • Medication, which can help with symptom relief or prevent further attacks
  • Stress management strategies, such as exercise and relaxation techniques

If you’re experiencing severe headaches or chronic migraine headaches, reach out to your primary care provider for treatment and prevention.

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