Headache or migraine?

man with headacheMost of us have experienced a headache before. Headaches are one of the most common conditions that people suffer from. In fact, it is highly unusual not to ever get one.

But what is the difference between a headache and a migraine?


There are many types of headaches, all with different causes.

Tension headaches — these are generally caused by physical or emotional stress on the body (e.g. stress, lack of sleep, poor posture). They are characterised with a steady but non-throbbing pain on both sides of the head. Sometimes they can feel like a tight band of pressure around the head and can last from 30 minutes up to a few days.

Cluster headaches — present as an excruciating pain located around or behind one eye. They usually occur in clusters (e.g. once or several times, every day for a few days or weeks to months), usually at the same time of day. They can last from 15 minutes to three hours. Patients usually become restless and pace the floor.

Secondary headaches — these are usually caused by an underlying problem, such as a neck problem, head injury, sinus, tooth or jaw problems, a hangover or eye-strain. Some medical conditions can also contribute to secondary headaches.


Technically, migraines are classified as a type of headache. But as any migraine sufferer would know, they are no ordinary headache. They can last anywhere from four to 72 hours. Migraines affect about 15 per cent of adults, with women two to three times more likely to get them than men. Migraines are characterised by:

  • A severe, throbbing headache often felt on one side of the head, and behind the eye.
  • Blurred vision, flashing lights, numbness, tingling
  • Sensitivity to light, noise or odours
  • Nausea or vomiting, upset stomach, abdominal pain
  • Loss of appetite.

Treating and managing headaches

There are a range of different medications for headaches available both over-the-counter (OTC) and by prescription. However, it is important to note that using too much headache medication can cause more headaches — also known as ‘rebound headaches’ or medication overuse headaches. Speak to your doctor or pharmacist to see if you are at risk of developing these type of headaches.

If you are a regular sufferer of headaches or migraines, you may benefit from keeping a headache diary. These special diaries (available at Headache Australia http://headacheaustralia.org.au/headache-management/7-chronic-headache-a-migraine-diaries) are designed for you to write down information regarding your headache, such as date, time, duration, type, and any environmental factors that may have occurred before your headache.

Keeping this diary for a few weeks or months may help you identify patterns and triggers for your headaches, and will greatly assist your general practitioner or pharmacist in managing your condition.

While the odd headache is normal, regular headaches — particularly those that interfere with the quality of your life — are not.

If your headaches or migraines are a problem for you, speak to your doctor.

Further information:

Headache Australia