Is it a Headache or a Migraine?

Image CaptionWhen it comes to headaches, the occasional persistent pain can be bothersome for some people, while others are forced to endure the constant threat of migraines and all that comes along with them. 

But figuring out if you have a migraine, common tension headache or other more serious medical condition can be tricky.

Ochsner Baptist Medical Center neurologist and headache specialist Dr. Carol Redillas said there are key differences between the regular, garden-variety headache and more serious conditions that may require a doctor’s intervention.

“All migraines are headaches, but not all headaches are migraines,” Dr. Redillas said.  “There are many different kinds of headaches, and a migraine is just one type of headache.”

Migraines are commonly associated with vision problems, nausea and sensitivity to light, noise or smell, Dr. Redillas said.

“One out of four people in the United States have migraine headaches,” she said.  “It’s typically a one-sided, throbbing headache that can be very debilitating for some, but usually moderate to severe in intensity.”

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache outside of migraines, Dr. Redillas said, and are characterized by a dull, persistent pain on both sides of the head.

Migraines tend to be more concentrated on one side of the head and cause throbbing pain, she said.

“Some patients have to stop everything they are doing when they have a migraine,” Dr. Redillas said.  “They typically have to rest and just limit their activity to feel better.”

While the strength, location and accompanying symptoms are usually enough to distinguish a migraine from a regular headache, there are other warning signs that can let you know when it’s time to see a doctor.

“If a patient usually has a headache on one side then suddenly it changes to the other side, that can be a cause for concern,” Dr. Redillas said.

In the worst-case scenario, such a drastic change in headache symptoms could signal a brain tumor or other malady, she said.

“If a headache usually comes once a month or once every two or three months and suddenly a patient started having headaches on an almost daily basis, that’s a red flag,” she said.  “Patients who develop fever with their headaches or other symptoms like facial droop or seizures with their headaches, that’s when it’s time to see a doctor or go to the ER.”

Most people will not see that type of escalation in headache frequency or strength though, Dr. Redillas said, and most common headaches can be treated with over-the-counter medications, rest and behavior modifications like reducing caffeine intake.

“Some patients who have headaches once a week, they usually take their over the counter medication and they’re ok,” she said.  “Some patients, especially if their job is very demanding, can’t have a headache affect them regularly.  They have to go on preventative medications so they won’t get headaches at all.  It all depends on how much headaches affect your life.”

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