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What’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?

Dr. Charisse Litchman

Medically reviewed by Dr. Charisse Litchman, MD, FAHS on August 18, 2020

Not all headaches are migraines. Migraines are one type of headache. The other most common types of headaches are tension headaches, cluster headaches, and headaches due to overuse of over the counter and prescription medications. All of these headaches affect your ability to function but do not suggest a more serious problem. They are called primary because there is no underlying medical condition to be worried about. Much less common are the secondary headaches which means that the headaches are the result of some medical condition in the body or the brain that needs to be treated.

Migraine headaches are usually on one side of your head (though it can be on the other side in a different headache), throbbing, and are pretty painful.  They are often associated with nausea and vomiting, dizziness, confusion, and sensitivity to light, noise, or smells. Migraine headaches usually last 4 to 72 hours if left untreated, and when they do finally go away, you can feel tired and “hungover” for another day or two.  Sometimes migraines are accompanied by “auras” which vary from person to person. The most common auras are flashing lights, zig-zag lines, loss of part of your vision, difficulty speaking, numbness and weakness of one side of the body or the other, and vertigo (room spinning). These auras generally last 5 minutes to an hour. Movement often makes migraine headaches worse. The headaches occur off and on with basically the same symptoms each time. These headaches occur more often in women.

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