Are Migraines and Tension Headaches Different?

Tension headaches and migraines are two of the most common types of headaches. While they may have some similar symptoms, they are different in terms of severity and type of pain. Tension headaches are usually caused by stress, worry, or tiredness and cause the muscles of the scalp, neck, and jaw to tighten, causing pain. This pain is usually more moderate than that of a migraine.

Migraines can be so severe that they hinder your ability to participate in daily activities. Both types of headaches can be treated with pain relievers, but other forms of treatment may also be used. It is important to keep track of triggers for both tension headaches and migraines so that they can be avoided or eliminated when possible. This will go a long way to controlling and preventing your headaches. Mixed tension migraines have symptoms of both tension headaches and migraines, but symptoms may vary from person to person.

Unlike some forms of migraine, tension headaches are not usually associated with visual disturbances, nausea, or vomiting. An increased sensitivity to light or sound can occur with a tension headache, but this symptom is not common. People with chronic tension-type headaches may have symptoms that last for months at a time. Pain can stay at the same level of discomfort for days. Although rare, these headaches can affect your quality of life.

This is different from migraine headaches, which usually cause throbbing pain and begin on one side of the head. This combination of tension and migraine headaches, formerly known as mixed headache syndrome, is now identified as migraine and coexisting tension headaches. Detecting and avoiding things or triggers that cause tension headaches can reduce how often headaches occur and how severe they occur when you have them. If tension headaches are life-altering or if you need to take medicine for headaches more than twice a week, see your doctor. While it may be tempting to treat headaches at home, repeated or recurrent use of medications can lead to a condition known as a drug-overuse headache, a condition in which headaches occur almost every day. If you experience a headache that is very different in quality or severity (the worst headache of your life) than your usual headaches, or that is associated with unusual symptoms or is associated with an elevated temperature, you need immediate medical evaluation to exclude serious underlying causes. Write down when you have a headache and how bad it is, along with details such as what you ate and what you were doing before the headache started.

Some other signs of migraine that don't usually occur in other types of headaches include nausea and vomiting, feeling dizzy, blurred vision, and intense sensitivity to light, noise, or smells. Pain for each type of headache can be localized on one side of the head or on both sides of the head. If you have a headache 15 or more days each month for a period of 3 months, you may have chronic tension headaches. Patients whose headaches do not respond to treatment in the primary care setting may require referral to a headache specialist for comprehensive treatment. While chronic tension headaches can disrupt your life, tension headaches usually don't cause serious health problems. Botulinum toxin type A (BTX-A) is sometimes injected into the muscles of the face and head to treat headaches.

Debora Lehneis
Debora Lehneis

Award-winning food advocate. Subtly charming bacon practitioner. Alcohol enthusiast. Proud travel aficionado. Incurable twitter scholar.

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