Headaches or Migraines: What’s the Difference?

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Most people suffer a headache at some point in their life, from the” brain freeze” of an ice cream headache, to the chronic head pain caused by a concussion.  While head pain is the common factor of these conditions, these types of head pain are unrelated.

Headaches are generally referred to as primary or secondary headaches.  Primary headaches occur because of conditions in your head, while a secondary headache could be a symptom of a disease or underlying condition.

Oh!  My Aching Head!

Primary headaches can be caused by a number of structures or conditions in your head.  Many different triggers can alter chemical signaling between muscles, nerves, and blood vessels in your neck, face, head, sinuses, and teeth. When chemical or electrical signaling fluctuates, or blood vessels and muscles quickly constrict or dilate, you may experience a headache.  In addition to environmental triggers, a tendency to experience primary headaches can also be genetic.

Even minor headache pain can be debilitating.  Pain in your head or face can affect your concentration and ability to do your job or take part in activities you enjoy or perform for work.  Common types of primary headaches include:

  • Tension headaches: The majority of all headaches are those caused by stress and tension that manifest through a tightening of muscles, nerves, blood vessels, and tissue in the head and neck.  If you hear someone say, “It feels like my head is in a vise,” they are probably talking about a tension headache.  The pain of a tension headache is mild to quite painful, without being severe.  It is steady pain, usually on both sides of the head.  Tension-type headaches commonly occur due to muscle tightening and constriction.
  • Migraine: Considered the result of abnormal vascular activity, migraines are different than tension-type headaches, although many people may describe their tension headache as a migraine. Unlike tension headaches that are spurred by tightened muscles in the head and neck, migraines more often result from chemical or electrical changes that cause vascular inflammation.  When blood vessels swell, they impinge on neighboring nerves, causing intense pain and other symptoms.  Less common than tension headaches, migraine pain still afflicts almost 30 million people each year in the US and is more common in women.  Migraine pain is moderate to severe with associated symptoms like visual disturbances, changes to sense of smell and taste, nausea, and vomiting.

Migraine pain is usually not symmetrical like a tension headache, but experienced behind an eye, ear, or other parts of the head.  Sensitivity to light can drive a migraine sufferer into a dark room until the episode passes.   Not surprisingly, migraine pain is associated with loss of productivity, income, and pleasure in life.

Treatment for tension and migraine headache pain includes identification of triggers, medication, relaxation techniques and stress reduction, as well as diet and exercise.

Although headache is a common healthcare complaint, it is important that your doctor takes the time to evaluate your symptoms, history, and concerns in order to provide you the best possible treatment options and rule out the likelihood of serious underlying conditions.

In the next of this three-part series, we’ll discuss secondary headaches that may signal a more serious healthcare concern.

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