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Head Pain: Is it a Headache or Migraine?
Health & Wellness

Head Pain: Is it a Headache or Migraine?

June 30, 2021

If you have throbbing, aching head pain, it’s likely either a headache or a migraine, a disruptive, often more intense headache which includes heightened sensory sensitivity. Learning to tell the difference between the two will help you understand what treatment works best and how to prevent future headaches.

In fact, migraine is a type of headache itself, so let’s start by looking at some of the most common forms of headache.


Two of the most common forms of headache are sinus headache and tension headache. Sinus headaches cause pain in the face, cheeks or bridge of the nose. Sinus headaches often occur with nasal congestion or a runny nose.

Tension headaches are a result of the neck and scalp muscles tensing or contracting. You may have tension headaches after feeling stressed, anxious or depressed, or doing activities that cause your head to be held in one position for a long time.

Symptoms of Headache

Headaches cause head pain that varies in intensity and location. Pain may be dull and feel like a tight band encircling the head. Or the pain may be sharp and occur on one side of the face between your neck and temple.


Migraines occur in four distinct phases: prodrome, aura, headache and postdrome. Several factors can trigger a migraine, including stress, hormonal changes, anxiety, lack of sleep and certain foods. Women are more likely to have migraines than men. Having a family history of migraines and personal history of other medical conditions also increases your risk.

Symptoms of Migraine

Migraines may resemble tension or sinus headaches, but they’re diagnosed based on their more severe features. The International Headache Society diagnoses migraine based on the following:

  • Pain: You may feel intense pulsing or throbbing pain on one side of the head.
  • Number of attacks: You experience at least five attacks that last 4–72 hours (untreated).
  • Additional symptoms: These include nausea, fatigue and sensitivity to light and sound.

Treating and Preventing Headaches

If you have headaches that occur three or more times per month, it may be time to seek preventive care.

If you have tension headaches, your physician will work with you to identify the root cause and help you avoid triggers. Your provider will prescribe medication to relieve tension headaches, including over-the-counter pain medicine or muscle relaxers.

Sinus headaches often resolve seven days after a viral infection. If pain continues, your physician may try to rule out other types of headaches.

There is no cure for migraine headaches. However, your physician will suggest treatment to relieve symptoms and prevent future attacks. You may try making dietary changes, taking prescribed medication, and practicing techniques to help with relaxation or stress reduction.

Seeking Care for Headaches or Migraines

You should call your family or primary care provider if your headaches:

side profile of woman holding head
  • Are worse in the morning
  • Have changed in pattern or severity
  • Have no known cause
  • Last more than a few days
  • Make it difficult to sleep

Headaches can also be a sign of emergencies, such as high blood pressure or bleeding in the brain. Seek emergency care if the headache is:

  • Accompanied with slurred speech, vision changes and confusion
  • Accompanied with fever, nausea and vomiting
  • Occurring after a head injury
  • Severe with redness in one eye
  • Sudden and violent

If you believe your headache may be a sign of a more serious medical problem, seek care at your local express care clinic.

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