How To Tell The Difference Between Migraines & Other Types Of Headaches

Photo: Unsplash: Ersin Mandaliev
Symptoms, Causes & Remedies Of Migraines Vs Different Types Of Headaches

Your head is in massive pain. You can’t think straight. You’ve got tension in your neck, and you feel a little nauseated, too.

It's possible you're experiencing migraine symptoms, but there are several different types of headaches, and knowing the which of them you're dealing with can make a huge difference in your ability to find relief.

Determining the kind of headache you’re having can help you choose the best possible remedies and treatment so you can get back to normal.

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The most dreaded of all headaches is the migraine, due to the complex grouping of symptoms and the overwhelming intensity that can debilitate you for hours or even days at a time.

Even worse, these horribly painful headaches may reoccur over the course of years on end, until the root causes are found.

Here’s a list of different types of headaches and their possible causes, so you can figure out what you're dealing with and how to get rid of them as quickly as possible.

1. Tension headaches

Causes: Perhaps the most well-known of all headaches, these are caused by muscle contractions in the head or neck.

Symptoms: Pain or discomfort like a band squeezing your head, scalp, or neck, often along with muscle tightness in these areas.

Remedies: The most common remedy is to take a couple of ibuprofen to help relax the muscles. Other analgesics like acetaminophen or aspirin can also help to relax those muscles. A head massage can help stressed-out muscles too.

2. Eyestrain headaches

Causes: These headaches are typically caused by excessive reading and overuse of the eyes.

Symptoms: Sore, tired, burning, itching, watery or dry eyes, blurred or double vision, sore neck, shoulders or back, increased sensitivity to light, difficulty concentrating, and/or a feeling that you cannot keep your eyes open.

Remedies: Common over-the-counter pain medications typically relieve this type of headache. If these headaches persist, you may need corrective lenses. Seeing an eye doctor can help you make that happen.

Sometimes your eyes just need a rest, so it’s a good idea to take breaks from long term reading and excessive screen time. Go take a walk, take a power nap, or meditate for up to a half-hour to rest your weary eyes. This can go a long way toward helping your eyes work at optimum capacity.

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3. Dehydration headaches

Causes: This type of headache happens when you’re not getting enough water. Alcohol can lead to dehydration headaches as well because it’s a diuretic, eliminating the body of necessary water. If heat exposure is combined with alcohol use and dehydration (think outdoor music festival or pool party), this combination can be lethal.

Dehydration can be extremely serious and may require immediate medical attention at your nearest urgent care or emergency room.

Symptoms: Your first clue may be that you’re thirsty. You may also experience increased heart rate, dizziness, fatigue, constipation, and thickened and decreased amounts of urine.

Remedies: The best way to alleviate head pain from dehydration is to drink plenty of water or other beverage with electrolytes in them as soon as possible. As mentioned above, in some cases, a trip to the hospital is necessary to remedy this potentially serious condition.

4. Sinus headaches

Causes: Sinus headaches are caused by pressure from congestion in the sinus cavities, "air-filled spaces inside your forehead, cheekbones, and behind the bridge of your nose."

Symptoms: Sinus headaches are accompanied by pain and pressure in the sinus cavities and around the eyes and behind your cheekbones. They can also feel like you’ve got pressure pushing down on your head. The sensation behind the eyes can feel like a stabbing pain.

Often, constipation goes along with a sinus headache. This is explained through the intimate connection between the bowel and the brain known as the gut-brain axis.

Remedies: You may gain relief from a sinus headache by having a colonic or enema done. It may sound awful, but it can prevent sinus congestion from becoming a sinus infection.

There are many over the counter remedies for sinus headaches that alleviate pain, pressure, and congestion.

Another way to help with keeping the sinuses clear is by using saline nasal spray. You can find these products in any pharmacy or drug store.

5. Migraine headaches

This is the king of all headaches, as they can be both physically debilitating and emotionally stressful.

Causes: Migraines are believed to be caused by many potential factors including food allergies, environmental exposures like dust mites or molds, chemicals in everyday products, hormonal changes, or even emotional distress.

Symptoms: During a migraine, symptoms may range from nausea and vomiting to impaired vision, extreme light and sound sensitivity, pain on one side of the head, and the inability to function. Many migraine sufferers must go into a darkened room for hours or sometimes days before the migraine breaks.

Migraine sufferers often describe strange symptoms they get when the migraine is coming on. This is commonly known as the migraine aura. Symptoms during the aura phase can include visual hallucinations, flashing lights, narrowing of the visual field, or even slurred speech and numbness in the limbs.

Some migraine headaches are followed by what's known as the prodrome phase in which you may feel exhausted and worn out.

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Migraine Triggers: Additional factors that have been linked to migraines include sleep deprivation and jet lag. Not getting enough sleep can cause blood vessels to constrict, triggering a potential cascade of effects in the body, including migraine headaches.

More women than men experience these powerful headaches, and it's not unusual for women to have migraines around the time of their menses.

Current research shows migraines may be associated with fluctuating estrogen and serotonin levels, which may then lead to constricted blood flow in the brain that cause intense head pain.

Emotional triggers are among the many potential reasons for the onset of migraine headaches. Extreme worry, fear, and anger have all been linked to these debilitating episodes.

We have all had the feeling of being sick to our stomachs when emotionally uncomfortable, and may have even described that as being worried sick. If you’ve ever heard the term “sick headache”, it’s one that’s brought on by your emotions.

Food allergies and intolerances are another common trigger of migraine headaches.

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Foods that have been commonly associated with migraines include gluten (the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye), casein (a protein in dairy products), chemical sweeteners like aspartame, monosodium glutamate (MSG flavor enhancer), food dyes, soy, eggs, shellfish, or corn. While these are the foods most commonly associated with triggering terrible headaches, there is a myriad of other foods may have negative interactions with your personal body chemistry.

Other migraine triggers include exposure to flashing lights and sound. Rock concerts, action movies and video games can cause a migraine to set in. Think about what you did and what you ate in the 24 hours before the onset of a migraine when looking for clues that may help you understand how it began and how you can resolve them.

RELATED: 6 Common Causes Of Migraines (That You May Not Realize) — And How To Treat The Headaches Without Medication

How to get relief from a migraine

Getting tested is one solution to finding out if the cause for you is in what you're eating. Another option is to eliminate these common foods to see if your symptoms improve. When you introduce these foods back into your diet, do them one at a time so you can see how your body reacts to them. If food is the culprit, taking out the offending ingredient could solve your migraine troubles for good.

There are many things you can do to alleviate the symptoms during a migraine.

You may use a cold compress on your forehead or over your eyes. Pressing on sore pressure points from the base of the skull to your temples, holding the point until the pain abates, can be helpful. A head massage can also offer relief.

The key differences between migraines vs other types of headaches include the following:

  • The intensity of your pain
  • The way that they affect senses like sight and sound
  • Their extended duration

Migraines often do not respond to traditional over-the-counter pain relievers, which is one of the reasons they are so distressing. In many cases, you will have to wait out the pain and nausea until they’ve passed.

If you have migraines and they persist, consult a doctor.

In many cases, the root cause can be determined, and your migraines can be eliminated altogether. There are also prescription drugs that can be very helpful in treating these painful episodes.

Headaches may also be warning signs of other health conditions, and your physician will know what to look for.

Persistent or chronic headaches of all types are challenging and can be serious.

Now that you know the differences between the most common kinds of headaches, you can seek the help you need to remedy them.

If they are migraines, there are many ways to alleviate or stop them altogether. Finding what works for you could set you free from a lifetime of terrible head pain.

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Dr. Meg Haworth is a holistic wellness expert focusing on healing the mind-body connection in women abuse survivors with chronic illness. For your step by step plan to help the body heal naturally, get her best-selling book, Get Well Now; Healing Yourself with Food and The Power of The Mind