Is it a Headache or a Migraine?

Not all headaches are migraines. In fact, there are many different types of headaches. Of these, migraine is the one type that causes pulsating or throbbing pain, often felt on one side of the head. To get the best effective treatment, you will first need to recognise the signs and symptoms that differentiate the different types of headaches from a migraine.

Why does your head ache?

It might feel like your brain is hurting, but it’s really your brain telling you the body parts that are hurting: nerves, muscles on your head and neck, and blood vessels. Sometimes the muscles or blood vessels may swell or tighten. They might also go through changes that stimulate or put pressure on the surrounding nerves. This typically sends a rush of pain messages to your brain, which brings on a headache in return.

Different things can trigger headaches. They include:


Stress of any sort could lead to a headache. It could be emotional stress, work pressure, depression, excessive alcohol intake, skipping of meals, insomnia or change in sleep patterns. Sometimes poor vision and other posture-induced stresses (like back and neck pain) could also lead to headaches. Poor hydration is another cause for headaches.

Environmental factors

Sometimes, certain types of strong smells, allergens or passive smoking could trigger the headache. Even the use of certain medicines may lead to headaches.


Hormone-related headaches are more commonly seen in women, during their monthly cycles, menopause or pregnancy. Headaches could also be a result of using contraceptive pills.

Underlying problems

Some forms of headaches are actually an indication of other underlying causes. Constant headaches could actually mean that the person may be suffering from stroke, meningitis, tumour, sinusitis or a head injury.


Migraines are less common than the traditional headaches, but they are more severe and are accompanied by other disabling symptoms such as nausea, blurred vision, etc. There are two types of migraine headaches that people experience - migraine with aura and migraine without aura. The latter type usually comes without warning signals, but migraine with aura is linked to sensations that a person feels about 10 to 30 minutes before migraine sets in.

These sensations include reduced mental alertness, seeing unusual lines or flashes of light, tingling or numbness in the hands and face, and unusual sense of smell, taste or touch. Some subtle signs such as constipation, depression, frequent yawning, irritability, and stiffness in the neck or unusual food cravings may also be felt.

Triggers of migraine

Although not much is known about the cause for migraines, researchers believe that it involves changes in the blood flow – starting with narrowing of the blood vessels (causing reduced blood flow, visual disturbances, speech restrictions, weakness/numbness or tingling sensation) followed by blood vessel dilation (leading to increased blood flow and severe headache).

Migraine tends to run in families, so if you’re suffering from migraine, it is most likely that a close relative (your mother, brother or a grandparent) could be enduring it too.

Migraines are often triggered by alcohol, caffeine, certain foods (such as cheese, chocolates, nuts, MSG), skipping meals, crying, intense physical activity, hormonal fluctuations, certain odours, bright light or loud noises, smoking, some medications, extreme weather conditions (heat, humidity), high altitude, etc.

Telling headaches and migraine apart

It is important to correctly diagnose the cause of headaches in order to rule out other serious health complications. A correct diagnosis will also ensure you get the right and speedy treatment. This usually involves checking of the patient’s medical history and careful neurological examination.

Treating the headache or migraine

If your headache is not due to a serious underlying condition, a relatively simple treatment could be considered. However, headache treatments go hand-inhand with preventive methods. So it is important that you control your headache (especially migraine) with a combination of prescribed medicines, lifestyle changes, and complementary therapies.


Migraine medicines are classified into two categories - one that prevents future attacks and the ones that can relieve pain. Some pain relieving medications include analgesics such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. For those who cannot find relief with analgesics, triptans could help.

Be aware that taking too many of these pain relieving medicines could lead to rebound headaches that keep coming back due to overuse of pain medicine. Too much of acetaminophen can damage your liver and too much of ibuprofen or aspirin can irritate your stomach or damage the kidneys. So the use of pain relievers should be limited and taken under supervision.

Analgesics could provide relief from traditional headaches, but for migraine and other severe forms of headache, you may need professional help. Seek your doctor’s advice before taking any medications.

Headache diary

When you know the triggers for headache, you can prevent headaches more efficiently. Tracking the triggers becomes simpler if you keep a headache log or diary, where you record the date and time when the headache started. Here’s what you should record in your diary:

  • All the foods you have eaten
  • All the beverages you have drunk
  • All the medicines you have taken
  • Your sleeping pattern (bedtime and the time you wake up)
  • All the exercises and physical activities you have been doing
  • Log of each headache (time and location of headache, how long it lasts, what did you do to ease the pain, how often it occurs, accompanying symptoms, what you were doing when the headache came on etc.)
  • Hormonal changes such as ovulation, etc.

Slowly, you will begin to notice the pattern for your headache and this will be a wealth of information for your doctor during your headache diagnosis.

Lifestyle modifications

Stress management and relaxation go a long way in providing long-term relief from headaches. These lifestyle modifications mainly involve the prevention of triggers.

  • Avoid cigarettes, caffeine, and alcohol.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Get ample sleep and rest (in a cool, darkened room).
  • Relax the mind and body.
  • Use alternative medications such as acupuncture, chiropractic, massage therapy and homeopathy.
  • Follow a regular, healthy diet.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Avoiding migraine inducing food triggers such as chocolate, cheese, MSG and other foods you may be allergic to (like nuts, certain fruits, dairy products, cured meats with nitrate, etc.)
  • Limit your time with electronic devices such as mobile phones, computers, TV, etc.

Grandma’s Headache Remedies

Experiencing just a light headache? These homemade remedies may just provide you with the relief you need:

  • Add equal parts of ginger and lime juice to water and drink it twice a day.
  • Apply fresh mint juice or lavender essential oil on your temples and forehead.
  • Boil a cup of water and simmer about two to three basil leaves in it. Sip it slowly.
  • Use an ice pack on the forehead or neck region to relieve the ache.