The Differences Between Tension and Migraine Headaches

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Most people have experienced occasional headaches due to illness or stress, but some headaches can become chronic, including tension and migraine headaches. Understanding the differences between tension headaches and migraines is crucial for accurate diagnosis, appropriate treatment and effective management of these common types of headaches that can affect your quality of life.

Symptoms and Causes of Tension Headaches

Tension headaches are the most prevalent type of headache, often characterized by a dull, non-throbbing pain that feels like a tight band around the head. These headaches typically cause mild to moderate pain and are not usually associated with other symptoms such as nausea or sensitivity to light or sound. Symptoms of tension headaches:

  • Mild to moderate, steady and diffuse pain affecting both sides of the head
  • Feeling of pressure or tightness across the forehead, sides or back of the head
  • Not typically accompanied by other symptoms like nausea or vomiting
  • Rarely aggravated by physical activity

Tension headaches are usually caused by strain that results in head pain. The possible causes include:

  • Stress or anxiety
  • Poor posture
  • Eyestrain
  • Jaw clenching or teeth grinding (bruxism)
  • Fatigue or lack of sleep
  • Muscle tension in the neck or scalp

Treatment for tension headaches commonly includes over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Stress management techniques like relaxation exercises, yoga or meditation may be beneficial, as well as applying heat or cold packs to the affected areas. Addressing the underlying causes, such as improving posture or managing stress, can provide long-term relief.

Symptoms and Causes of Migraine Headaches

Migraines are a neurological condition characterized by recurrent, intense headaches often accompanied by other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, or smells. Migraines can be debilitating and significantly affect daily activities. Symptoms of migraine headaches include:

  • Moderate to severe pulsating or throbbing pain, usually on one side of the head
  • Nausea, vomiting or stomach upset
  • Sensitivity to light, sound or smells (photophobia, phonophobia, osmophobia)
  • Aura: visual disturbances like flashing lights, blind spots or tingling sensations (experienced by some but not all migraine sufferers)
  • Worsening of symptoms with physical activity

Some of the possible causes of migraine headaches include:

  • Genetic factors
  • Triggers like certain foods, hormonal changes, stress, lack of sleep, environmental factors or sensory stimuli
  • Changes in brain chemicals and nerve pathways

Treatment for migraine headaches includes over-the-counter or prescription medications like NSAIDs, triptans, anti-nausea drugs, or prescription medications for prevention in chronic cases. Botox injections have been FDA-approved for migraine treatment. Treatment plans may include identifying and avoiding triggers and lifestyle changes such as maintaining a regular sleep schedule, managing stress, and maintaining a healthy diet.

Tension headaches and migraines differ in their characteristics, severity, associated symptoms and potential triggers. While tension headaches typically cause mild to moderate, non-throbbing pain without additional symptoms, migraines often involve severe, pulsating pain accompanied by nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and, in some cases, visual disturbances. Accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment tailored to the specific type of headache are essential for effectively managing these conditions and improving quality of life.

If you have chronic tension or migraine headaches that are impacting your quality of life, contact our team at Allied Pain & Spine Institute. Call one of our centers in the greater San Jose, CA, area to schedule a headache exam and medical consultation with one of our pain specialists.

Posted on behalf of Allied Pain & Spine Institute