How to tell if your headache is a migraine

June 06, 2016 | by Siva Krishnan, MD
Categories: Healthy Driven Life

When your head is throbbing with pain, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else.

Everyone gets headaches once in a while, caused by a variety of circumstances. Tension headaches often result from stress. Sinus headaches can come from nasal congestion due to allergies or an infection.

Headaches hurt. But a migraine is a different ball game. Start with an intense headache, then add nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light – possibly even auras, such as flashing lights or spots. Many people feel a throbbing pain on one side of the head.

Migraines can be debilitating. Some common triggers include:

  • Stress and anxiety
  • Changes in the weather
  • Caffeine (too much or too little)
  • Chocolate or alcohol
  • Lack of sleep or too much sleep
  • Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle
  • Skipping meals
  • Foods containing nitrates (e.g., luncheon meats, hot dogs, etc.)
  • Foods containing tyramine (e.g., aged cheeses, smoked fish, etc.)
  • Foods containing monosodium glutamate (e.g., most diet or "light" soft drinks)

Mayo Clinic offers this comprehensive list of potential migraine causes.

Bad headaches can make you wonder if they’re migraines. How can you tell the difference? The Office on Women’s Health offers this helpful symptom comparison chart.
Tension headaches don’t usually lead to nausea or vomiting, light sensitivity or auras.

Generally, the medicine used to treat headaches won’t ease a migraine (and vice versa). There are things you can do that will lessen the pain of a migraine or make them less likely to occur.

Still not sure whether you’re experiencing migraines? Track your symptoms and make an appointment with your primary care physician. Your doctor will be able to determine whether you’re experiencing migraines, and the best way to manage your pain.

If you suffer from migraines or other forms of headache, the neurologists at the Edward-Elmhurst Health Headache Clinic can help you manage them.

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