Headache vs. Migraine
When a headache strikes, you’re probably used to reaching for a bottle of ibuprofen. For most people, a headache is something you treat at home. But how do you know what kind of headache you have and whether you should seek help?
“What kind of headache a patient is suffering from isn’t always clear to them. It could be a stress or tension headache, a sleep deprivation headache or cervicogenic headache originating from the neck,” says Dr. Jigar Mankad, neurologist at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center. “A migraine is another kind of headache.”
Headaches of all kinds can vary in how painful they are. Some kinds of headaches, like an occipital neurological headache, can be more severe than a migraine. However, migraines are unique in how many different symptoms you experience and how long they last. A migraine usually lasts between four and 72 hours. Symptoms can include nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, vomiting and blurred vision – usually, you’ll experience a combination of several of these symptoms in addition to the pain.
Migraines can have many causes, but typically have some kind of genetic component. If your parents suffered from migraines, you are much more likely to develop migraines. Migraines can also happen after a traumatic brain injury, even a minor concussion or accident. In general, many things can trigger migraines, especially if you have some genetic predisposition for them.
If you’re at high risk of migraines, dietary choices can also trigger a migraine. This includes not drinking enough water or consuming too much chocolate, cheese or coffee. While taking pain medication can be a helpful way to treat a headache at home, including a migraine, you should be careful this doesn’t become a habit.
“If you get a headache more than twice a month accompanied by worrisome signs like extreme light sensitivity, vomiting or blurred vision, you should get it checked out,” says Dr. Mankad. “Before you get in the habit of taking over the counter medication, talk to a doctor. There are other treatment options including preventative medicine that can help.”
With recurrent migraines, the main goal of a specialist like Dr. Mankad is to break the pain cycle in the brain. Relying on over-the-counter medications too often can cause a medication overuse headache, where the brain starts to signal that it needs more pain medication as it grows used to the drug.
If you have never experienced headaches before and suddenly experience headaches, especially if you are over 35, that’s a red flag. Sudden, new and severe headaches are a reason to go see your doctor. Your doctor can run necessary tests and refer you to a specialist. Treatments can include preventative medication, Botox and more that can prevent or reduce the amount of headaches you have each month. While nontraditional treatments like ear piercing or herbal supplements help some patients, your doctor can give you evidence-based advice for the right options to start with.
“Some patients resign themselves to living with migraines, especially if it runs in the family,” says Dr. Mankad. “You don’t have to suffer through migraines without treatment. Reach out to a specialist for care. There are options that can help you live a normal life.”
About the Author
Ben Hoekstra is a public affairs coordinator with Advocate Aurora Health. He previously worked in marketing and PR for various Milwaukee nonprofits and received his master’s degree in Corporate Communications from Marquette University. He enjoys the outdoors, cooking, and all things Milwaukee.