How can you tell the difference between a migraine and a headache?

Verified on 19/11/2023 by Alexane Flament, Editor
Comment faire la différence entre une migraine et un mal de tête ?

They’re often confused, but the symptoms of a simple headache aren’t quite the same as those of a migraine. We tell you how to tell them apart!

Affecting more than half of all adults, tension headache is the most common headache. It is characterized by pain localized in the skull up to the nape of the neck, and a more or less intense sensation of compression around the head, forehead and temples.

It occurs when you’re tired, dehydrated (especially from too much alcohol) or in an awkward position. It’s also possible that vision problems, osteoarthritis of the cervical vertebrae, early pregnancy or the consumption of certain foods are responsible for this headache.

Often transient (although it can be chronic), it eventually passes after a few minutes or days, usually after taking a painkiller.

It differs from migraine, a neurological problem that affects 15% of the French population, with women in the majority (two to three times more than men).

But how can you recognize a migraine and not confuse it with a temporary headache? Here’s the lowdown!

How to recognize a migraine?

While the sensations may be more or less similar, a migraine is very different from a tension headache or a headache. Although benign, it can be very disabling in everyday life. Its main characteristics are :

  • Repeated attacks, although it’s possible to suffer a migraine only once a year, for example,
  • A rather long duration, as migraines can last several days (on average 6 hours),
  • Pulsating pain of moderate to severe intensity, characterized by a sensation of heartbeats felt on one side of the head only,
  • Concentration problems,
  • Nausea, vomiting and hypersensitivity to light (photophobia), sound (phonophobia) and odors (osmophobia).

What causes a migraine?

Migraine sufferers are often forced to isolate themselves for the duration of the attack, but also sometimes when the migraine is in the making. Indeed, it is often preceded by warning signs such as :

  • A feeling of hunger,
  • Mood disorders,
  • Sensory disturbances called « aura », characterized by blurred vision, slurred speech, impaired hearing and tingling sensations.

The factors leading to a migraine attack are not clearly identified, even if there is a family background. Apart from genetic predisposition, a certain recurrence of triggers has been noted, such as :

  • Stress,
  • A change of pace,
  • Hormonal variations,
  • An aggressive environment (sound, noise, strong odors),
  • Great fatigue, overwork,
  • The weather,
  • Consumption of certain foods and/or stimulants(chocolate, alcohol, cheese, coffee, cold meats, etc.).

For the time being, there is no effective curative treatment to cure the disease in the long term.