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How to Tell if A Headache is Really a Migraine

We’ve all been there—your head starts pounding in the middle of the work day and you can’t wait to go home. It feels like the stress of the world is festering in your brain, causing your forehead to ache and your neck to hurt. Sound familiar? Well, you’re not alone. Nearly everyone has experienced a headache at least once in their lives. But when headaches happen often or come on strongly with symptoms that impact your daily life, you may not be experiencing a typical headache.


The Influence of Migraines

While you may consider migraines to be a type of headache, they’re differentiated by their symptoms and how they’re treated. Migraines also tend to be studied and researched more heavily than your typical headache with some interesting findings. More than 38 million Americans suffer from migraines. Two to three million sufferers experience them on a chronic basis. Sixty-three percent of people experience at least one migraine per month and 24% head to the emergency room due to severe pain.

Migraines can be completely debilitating due to intense pain and accompanying symptoms. They prevent some people from going to work, driving a car, or even getting out of bed. So, if a migraine is just a really bad headache, how can you tell the difference between the two? How should migraines be treated? It’s important to note what happens when your headache isn’t just a headache and learn how to improve your quality of life while dealing with this condition.


Headache Versus Migraine: What’s the Difference?

Okay, so you feel that workday headache coming on. Should you take ibuprofen and a quick nap to treat your symptoms or turn to migraine medicine? Most medical professionals study multiple sets of criteria to determine if someone is plagued with a regular headache or if a migraine is at play. While it might be tempting to self-diagnose based upon your symptoms, your primary care physician is your best bet for migraine relief.

The pain associated with headaches and migraines can be somewhat similar as both can strike with different levels of intensity and affect varying parts of the head. But how the pain feels will determine whether you have a headache or migraine. Headache pain usually involves constant tightness in certain parts of the head, while a migraine takes on a more throbbing quality. Sometimes, physical movement can intensify the pain associated with a migraine.

Aside from the pain, you’ve probably noticed that each time your head hurts, an array of additional symptoms tend to plague you. Headaches can include soreness in the neck or shoulders as well as tenderness in your head. Other than that, your symptoms don’t really change much over its duration. Migraines, on the other hand, are more fluid and can be affected by light, sounds, and smells. They can also be accompanied by nausea or vomiting, making it far more difficult to get through your work day.

The cause of your pain will help doctors determine whether you have a regular headache or if you’re dealing with a chronic migraine. While it’s very difficult to say specifically what causes head pain, experts find that in most instances, headaches are caused by stress. On the other hand, a migraine could be the result of hormonal changes, exhaustion, or even eating certain foods. Over time, some individuals can pinpoint their specific triggers, while others live in fear that a migraine could strike at any moment.


When Should You Worry?

It’s frustrating to deal with headaches on a regular basis. But whether they’re actually migraines and causing damage are often the types of questions on most people’s minds. If you’re struggling with persistent head pain, it’s recommended that you visit your primary care physician to explore ways to manage your symptoms. However, other warning signs should prompt more immediate medical attention, including:

  • Headaches that occur after getting hit in the head
  • Significant changes in personality or mental function during a headache
  • Headaches accompanied by eye pain and redness
  • Noticeable change in the pattern of headaches
  • Regular headaches that begin after the age of 50


Easing the Pain of Migraines

If none of the above criteria are present and you’re dealing with migraines that affect your day-to-day life, there are ways to help treat them. Depending on your situation, you may opt for home remedies that offer comfort while you wait for the pain to subside. Many people put a cold washcloth across their forehead or around the back of their neck, use over-the-counter painkillers, or turn to caffeine to help reduce symptoms. Simply resting in a dark, quiet room can also help to alleviate a migraine. And while sleep may be difficult, a nap can do wonders.

Individuals who experience severe migraines may find these home remedies don’t do much to help with their issues. After visiting their physician, it’s determined that medication is the best way to go. Two general categories are available, including prescriptions. Some are taken regularly to fend off migraines before they begin, and others end migraine symptoms during an episode. There are multiple options within each type, so discuss your needs with your doctor in order to determine what might work best for you.

Doctors also note that specific lifestyle choices can help stave off migraines before they start. While these factors aren’t specific to headaches in general, they’ll help to improve your overall health and well-being. Getting enough sleep each night, exercising regularly, and ensuring that you eat enough foods with magnesium and B12 can all work to reduce the frequency and duration of migraine symptoms. Other studies may suggest using specific herbs to help with headaches. But keep in mind that remedies that aren’t FDA approved should only be used after consulting with your doctor.

Promising Migraine Research

Because so many people regularly suffer from migraines, physicians continue to investigate why they happen and how to prevent them. Women often experience these painful headaches more frequently than men, with some experts pointing to diet as a key factor. One option to explore is an elimination diet that requires you log your food and beverage intake each day. As you experience migraines, look to the previous 48 hours of meals and note any patterns. Try eliminating these items and see if it has an effect on your symptoms.

An interesting study conducted between 1999 and 2004 also sheds light on unusual migraine links with over 8,800 people reporting their sodium intake and headache symptoms. To the surprise of experts at Huntington Medical Research Institutes, those who ate a lot of salty foods noted that they didn’t experience migraines as often as those who refrained from sodium. However, many are skeptical about this approach as diets containing high salt levels have been linked to stroke and heart disease.

Other more neurological considerations are also being explored. The Journal of Headache and Pain, for example, published a study that examined the neural connections present in participants who experience migraines. After a series of imaging tests, it was discovered that links between the somatosensory cortex and the frontal lobe may not be the same as the makeup of neurological activity in non-migraine prone individuals. The finding gives researchers hope that targeted migraine therapy may be one of many ways to approach this nagging condition.


Keeping Your Migraines at Bay

There’s a long way to go when it comes to the clinical study of migraines and headaches. Yet, as medical technology continues to advance, it’s possible that a true cure for these symptoms will surface. Whether it’s dietary restrictions that work to avoid all triggers or a daily medication that helps to stop a migraine in its tracks, the future looks bright! This is good news, particularly for individuals who find it difficult to function daily with migraine pain.

For now, discuss any changes in the frequency, duration, or severity of your headache or migraine symptoms with a doctor. Treatments are available, and depending on your specific circumstances, you’ll find that living with migraines can be completely controllable. As with many other medical conditions, the more proactive you are to maintain your overall health and well-being, the better equipped you’ll be to combat migraine symptoms.

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