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Pop-art illustration of woman with her hands to her head to help convey headache or migraine.

Pop-art illustration of woman with her hands to her head to help convey headache or migraine.
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How do you know if you're having a migraine or a headache?

Blog post | 11 Mar 2019

Headaches are, unfortunately, a part of life. They can be triggered by many things, from hot dogs and ice cream to swimming goggles. Nine out of 10 people have had a headache.

While they are are less common, it's estimated that almost 5 million Australians experience migraines. Due to hormonal factors, migraines are believed to affect more women than men, and migraines typically run in families.

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

A tension-type headache, the most common type of headache, causes pain on both sides of the head. It's a tight pressure rather than a throbbing, and you might also have soreness in your temples, neck and shoulder muscles. Headache pain isn't usually considered 'severe'.

Migraine, on the other hand, has many symptoms — including headache. This can feel like a throbbing pain that might be worse on one side of your head. You can also feel pain around your eyes, temples, face, jaw or neck. The pain may increase with physical activity, which is why it helps to lie down.

But the key difference between a headache and migraine? Migraines can be distressing and debilitating and can affect your whole body. People can feel vaguely unwell for a day or two before a migraine headache comes on (although not all migraines involve headache). Once it has started, a migraine headache can last for between 4 hours and several days.

"Migraine is a chronic disorder of the brain with recurrent severe attacks... other common features [besides headache] are nausea or even vomiting," explains Assistant Professor of Neurology Yulia Orlova on The Conversation. "Many people have sensitivity to light, odours or sounds and are unable to carry on daily activity."

Migraine is ranked the sixth most disabling disease in the world. —Global Burden of Disease    

What is a 'migraine with aura'?

There are 2 types of migraine: migraine with aura, and without aura.

It might sound a bit paranormal, but migraine with aura is very real. Some people see flashing lights or a change in their vision; some having trouble speaking, and some feel 'pins and needles' (tingling) in their arms and legs. This can happen before or during a migraine attack.

Even if you get auras, you may not experience one with every migraine. The aura itself usually lasts less than an hour. Scientists aren't entirely sure why it happens.

Tips for dealing with migraines

If you suffer from migraine — or frequent headaches that concern you — you should see a doctor. In the meantime, these tips might help in preventing and treating migraines.

  • While you have the headache, rest in a quiet, dark room. Get as much help as possible with any work or family responsibilities.

  • Migraines can be triggered by many things, including certain foods, changes in weather, alcoholic beverages and hormones. For a list of common triggers, as well as symptoms of migraine, visit Headache Australia. Keeping a migraine diary can identify potential triggers and help you and your doctor make a plan to prevent and treat future migraines.

  • Stress is known to be a trigger for migraines. Talk to your doctor about relaxation techniques (e.g. yoga, meditation) that may help manage stress. Similarly, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psychological therapy that teaches a person to identify and challenge thoughts that lead to stress.

  • Unless your doctor advises you to, don't take opioid-associated pain relief medication for migraines (e.g. pethidine, codeine, oxycodone, buprenorphine). These medicines can make nausea and vomiting worse, and can be addictive, according to NPS MedicineWise.

  • Migraines can force a person to miss important social, work and family commitments. Unless they understand what it's like to experience a migraine, your loved ones can become frustrated or resentful, says Headache Australia. If you suffer from migraines, try to educate others on how severe the symptoms of migraine can be. Consider bringing your partner or a family member to your next doctor's visit.

Where to seek help

  • Always see your doctor if you're worried about migraines or headaches. Seek medical attention immediately if you are experiencing any other sudden or unusual symptoms.
  • If you're not sure whether you're having a migraine, try the healthdirect Symptom Checker tool for advice on what to do next.
  • If you're not sure whether you need to see a doctor or go to hospital, you can call healthdirect for advice on 1800 022 222 (24 hours a day).
  • To find a doctor or health service near you, use the healthdirect service finder.
  • Visit the Headache Australia website for information and support. There, you can also join Headache Australia's national register to stay informed of any new treatments, developments and research into migraine and headache.

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