Everyone has suffered headaches on occasion, and for some people, headaches are a regular part of life. Whether they are triggered by tension, allergies or sinus infections, headaches impact negatively on our lives, but are usually treatable with over the counter medicines such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
As any migraine sufferer can tell you, migraines differ greatly from common headaches, even though both are classified as primary headaches (as opposed to secondary headaches which are rarer and generally more serious and may be caused by underlying health issues such as tumors, aneurysms or disease). In order to receive proper treatment, it’s important to understand the difference between a headache and a migraine.
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What we often call “regular” headaches are generally either tension or sinus headaches. Tension headaches, the most common kind, feel like pressure around the head and a dull ache, with the pain felt most severely at the base of the skull, the neck and the temples. A sinus headache can be felt around the eyes in the sinus cavities, and is often due to a sinus infection. Antihistamines and OTC pain medications may not be enough for a sinus headache, which might require antibiotics as well.
Rebound headaches are caused by the overuse of OTC painkillers like aspirin or Motrin, and while the precise cause isn’t clear, they may — ironically — be a mild form of withdrawal from the pain medications. Another, much more unusual primary headache is a cluster headache, which is an extremely painful recurring headache on one side of the head that is accompanied by watery eyes, nasal congestion and dripping on the one side.
Migraines are caused by blood vessels in the head constricting and dilating, producing inflammatory substances that cause pain and pulsing sensations. Like cluster headaches, migraines often affect one side of the face/head, but migraines can also cause pain behind the eye or ear, or in both temples.
If left untreated, pain from a migraine continues anywhere from a few hours to several days, and many migraine sufferers experience at least two bouts a month. Other symptoms unique to migraines include an increased sensitivity to light or noise (sometimes both), nausea, vomiting and pain so severe that it interferes with or precludes normal activity.
Another sign of a migraine is an aura, which can take the form of bright spots, shapes or flashes of light that only the sufferer sees. Since auras usually occur before the migraine sets in, a migraine sufferer who knows what is happening has time to prepare. This may mean taking a prescribed medication before the actual pain starts or lying down in a quiet, darkened room.
Migraines can be very debilitating and they often interfere with normal activities. If you think you may be a migraine sufferer, make note of the location, severity and type of pain you have, any increased sensitivity to light or noise, the duration of the pain and response (or lack of response) to OTC treatments. If you are experiencing the symptoms of a migraine, consult your health practitioner who should be able to diagnose and treat your problem.