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What is the Difference between Headache and Migraine?

Person suffering migraine attack and dizziness. Difference between headache and migraine

Migraine is not merely a severe headache; it is a debilitating neurological disorder that requires distinct treatment approaches from other types of headaches. According to the American Migraine Foundation, the number of individuals in the United States affected by migraine is estimated to be at least 39 million. However the actual figure is likely higher due to underdiagnosis. 

Migraine is a chronic condition that can begin in childhood and persist throughout a person’s life, manifesting in different forms over time. Generally, as patients age, there is a reduction in headache intensity and a higher occurrence of atypical migraine symptoms such as vertigo, ear pain, and gastrointestinal issues.


Common Symptoms of Migraine

Migraine comes with a wide variety of symptoms outside of just headache. If you experience additional symptoms such as the ones in the list below your head pain may actually be a migraine: 

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Facial Pain
  • Light or Sound Sensitivity
  • Moderate to Severe Pain that is disabling
  • Head pain that is throbbing or pounding
Migraines can be classified as either episodic or chronic. People with episodic migraine have less than 15 headache days per month whereas someone with chronic migraine has more than 15. Again, migraine is more than a headache and comes with a whole constellation of neurological symptoms.

What Does a Migraine Attack Look Like?

A migraine attack typically has four distinct phases: prodrome, aura, headache, and postdrome. This can be highly variable as not all people experience all four phases. Not experiencing Aura is a very common among migraine sufferers.

Prodome and Aura phases occur before the headache develops. Prodromal symptoms can include tiredness, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, and mood fluctuations that indicate an attack is coming. Aura occurs just before the headache and is a clear indicator that an attack is about to occur. Aura symptoms can include changes in vision, numbness/tingling on the face, or even trouble speaking. The more familiar you become with your prodrome and aura presentation, the better equipped you are to stave off an attack.

The headache phase of an attack is the most uncomfortable. It’s usually experienced as pain on one side of the head and can last from hours to days. In addition to headache is often accompanied by nausea, dizziness, and light/sound sensitivity. Postdrome refers to post attack and can include feeling tired, worn out, or fatigued. Almost like a “migraine hangover”.


In sum, migraine is a neurological disorder that differs from headache. It includes headache as a symptom but is accompanied by a host of other symptoms as mentioned above. If you find that your “headache” is causing you to miss work or school it is worth seeing a neurologist to see if you have migraine. 

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