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Migraines: When is it More than Just a Headache?

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“Ugh, all this noise is giving me a migraine!”

We’ve likely all muttered this phrase at one time or another to describe an exaggerated, throbbing, relentless headache. For the 39 million Americans who suffer from migraines, however, the reality of this neurological disease is devastatingly painful, and for many, disruptive to their day-to-day lifestyle. Where, then, is the line between a terrible headache and a more severe migraine? Can the pain adequately be measured, or are there other symptoms that indicate are more severe condition?

What is a Headache?

A headache is an aching or sensation of pressure, most often on both sides of the head. Headaches range from mild to severe, sometimes focus on the temples, forehead, or back of the neck, and can last from 30 minutes to seven days. The most common form of headaches is a tension headache, typically caused by stress, anxiety, or muscle strain.

What is a Migraine?

Unlike a typical tension headache, a migraine is a neurological disease marked by various symptoms that include more than head pain. Like tension headaches, they can range in severity and length. For a migraine sufferer, changes in brain activity impact blood flow in the brain and surrounding areas. In addition to head pain, during a migraine, a person may experience:

  • Nausea
  • Sensitivity to noise, light, or smells
  • Dizziness
  • Exhaustion or fatigue

Migraines can be triggered by a variety of factors, depending on the person, and may include:

  • Gender – Women are three times more likely than men to suffer migraines
  • Genetics – Those with a family history of migraines are more likely to experience them as well
  • Hormonal shifts – For women, hormonal changes, including the menstrual cycle, may trigger a migraine
  • Allergies – Since allergies cause inflammation, a common migraine trigger, some people who suffer from allergies experience related migraines

In addition to the common factors listed above, some people find that their migraines are brought on by such factors as stress, sleep deprivation, some foods, smells, or even the weather.

How to Tell the Difference Between a Headache and a Migraine

If you have the following symptoms, you may be experiencing a tension headache:

  • Pain on both sides of the head
  • A sensation of pressure, rather than throbbing
  • Tightness or soreness in your neck, shoulders, temples, and upper body muscles

If you have the following symptoms, you may be experiencing a migraine:

  • Throbbing head pain that may be more severe on one side
  • Nausea
  • Pain that escalates with activity
  • A worsening of symptoms from light, sound, and smells
  • A tingling in your face or arm before the head pain sets in
  • You see flashing lights, dots, or wavy lines

When to See Your Doctor

Understanding and accurately diagnosing a typical headache and a migraine can make the crucial difference between ongoing suffering and obtaining proper treatment. Maybe, more importantly, it can help you minimize the continuous frequency of your painful symptoms. If you believe that you are suffering from regular migraines, talk to your doctor. With an effective treatment plan and a commitment to essential lifestyle changes, you can stop living in fear of debilitating pain and start reclaiming your lifestyle.