Chronic headaches affect a significant portion of the population. In the United States, 14.7 percent of people are afflicted with periodic migraines. This makes migraines more common than diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, and asthma. When a patient wants to solve his or her headache problems, it is essential to determine whether their symptoms are migraines or whether they are another type of headache. Dr. Alireza Minagar, a board-certified neurologist with decades of experience, explains the differences between simple headaches and migraines.
Symptoms of Migraine
Most commonly, migraine headache presents not only with a severe throbbing headache, but also with sensitivity to light, sensitivity to noise, nausea, vomiting, and lack of energy. Migraines progress in recognizable stages. The first stage is the premonitory or warning stage when most experienced patients will know that they are about to have a migraine. Symptoms of the premonitory stage include mood changes, tiredness, craving sweets, a stiff neck, and a feeling of thirst.
The second stage is known as the aura. Not all migraine sufferers experience the aura stage. The aura stage can involve an array of frightening neurological symptoms. People may experience visual disturbances like spots in their vision, vertigo, and numbness. In severe cases, hearing and speech can be affected. Patients may also feel fear and confusion. Generally, these symptoms come on before the headache, but in children, they may happen simultaneously.
The third stage is the headache itself. Migraine pain is severe and can be throbbing. People with migraines describe the pain as being worsened by movement. Generally, the headache starts on one side of the head, but it can spread to the entire head. The patient may experience nausea and vomiting, and they may also be susceptible to light and sound.
The headache may end slowly and fade away, or it may end abruptly. Many patients find that sleep helps to bring an attack to closure. Recovery from migraine takes hours or days. The feeling can cause the patient to feel as if they have a “hangover.” They may also find that they have similar symptoms as in the premonitory stage.
Migraines can have a significant effect on a patient’s home, school, work, and family lives. Fortunately, medications are available which can shorten the length of an attack or stop symptoms altogether if they are taken quickly enough. These medications include amitriptyline.
One type of headache which is frequently mistaken for migraine is a tension headache. Tension headaches are the most common type of headache and typically present as a moderate headache which feels like squeezing a band around the head. Tension headaches are not as severe as migraines, but they can be bothersome and cause patients to miss school or work.
Tension headaches respond well to non-drug and medication therapies. Reducing stress and coping with it in healthy ways are two ways to reduce the incidence of tension headaches. Meditation, yoga, and exercise can help to prevent these attacks. Fortunately, they generally respond well to over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs.
Another, more severe type of headache, which is commonly mistaken for migraine is the cluster headache. Cluster headaches are named for the fact that they tend to occur in a series. They can be more painful than migraines, but they do not last as long. They are characterized by a great deal of pain around one of the eyes. They are so severe that many people cannot sit and relax while the headache is in progress. These headaches may occur seasonally, with sufferers often experiencing them at the same time each year, such as in the spring or fall. This seasonality may cause the headaches to be chalked up to allergies.
The cluster headache is thought to be caused by the trigeminal nerve, which covers the face. The exact mechanism of the headache is not known, but when this nerve is triggered in a certain way in the brain, a cluster headache occurs. Cluster headaches can be difficult to manage with medication due to their short duration. Like migraines, they can cause serious disruption in the patient’s life.
Various types of headaches can be mistaken for migraines. When patients understand the different symptoms of each type of attack, they will be better able to ask for help from their physician. People with severe headaches of any type would benefit from visiting a qualified neurologist like Dr. Alireza Minagar.