Understanding Headaches and Migraines

Headaches and Migraines Banner featuring woman suffering from migraine pain

Headaches and Migraines are common conditions and will give you a feeling of discomfort and pain in your forehead, neck or scalp. It is estimated that 7 in 10 people will have at least one headache per year and 1 in 7 will suffer from migraine pain. In general, most headaches are nothing to worry about. Headaches range from mild to severe and can cause issues with concentration and discomfort throughout the day, but can be easily treated with over the counter medication or changes to your lifestyle.

What is the Difference Between a Headache and a Migraine?

It is important to be able to tell the difference between a headache and a migraine, as this can help you treat the condition quicker with the right medication, or make the correct changes to your lifestyle to try and prevent future issues. In order to tell them apart, we need to look closer at the differences between headache and migraines.

What is a Headache?

Headaches are an unpleasant pain or discomfort in your head. There are a number of different types of headache that can be classified in two ways - primary and secondary.

  • Primary Headaches: These types of headaches are independent of any other issue and will often be triggered by overactivity of certain areas of the head and neck. Common types of primary headache are tension headaches and cluster headaches.
  • Secondary Headaches: These types of headaches are caused by another underlying condition which can range from stress and pregnancy through to a brain tumor or stroke.

Secondary headaches can be a result of serious health issues and you should seek advice from your GP if your headache is severe, persistent, occurs regularly and does not improve with medication.

Types of Headache

Different types of headache will result from different triggers, here are a few of the common headaches that people experience:

Tension Headache
Tension headaches are one of the most common types of primary headache. The pain will often come on gradually and can manifest as a constant dull ache on both sides of the head, pain spreading from or to your neck or a feeling like you’ve got a tight band around your head. Tension headaches can last anywhere from a few hours to several days. Common causes of tension headaches include: stress, hunger, depression, sleep apnea, arthritis and even poor posture.

Medication Overuse Headache
Also known as a rebound headache, as the name suggests a medication overuse headache will often be triggered when a person stops taking medication that they have relied on for pain relief such as painkillers that contain codeine or morphine. Reliance on medication can often cause your headaches to get worse thanks to rebound headaches. These are especially common with migraine sufferers.

Cluster Headaches
Cluster headaches are rare non-throbbing headaches that can cause an excruciating pain just behind the eyes or on one side of your head. These headaches can last for long periods of time also known as the ‘cluster period’. During this period a cluster headache may occur once or more a day. The cause of cluster headaches is still relatively unknown due to their rarity, however they are more likely to affect men between the ages of 20 and 40.

Thunderclap Headaches
Thunderclap headaches aren’t gradual, they are intense right from the start and they are very intense and very painful. A thunderclap headache can be caused by an underlying condition. It is important to seek medical advice if you believe yourself to have one of these headaches. Symptoms include vomiting, nausea and fainting.

What is a Migraine?

Migraine headaches and migraine pain can be intense and will often have other symptoms beyond a pain in your head. As with other headaches, there are different types of migraine pain to be aware of.

Establishing whether you’re experiencing a migraine or a regular headache can be difficult, as migraine sufferers are also likely to experience headaches regularly. We recommend keeping a migraine diary, where you record vital details of your migraine attacks taking details such as frequency of attacks, the location of the pain and what symptoms you have. It is also valuable to write down details on your nutrition, how much sleep you’re getting and work activities. In doing so you’ll start to work out what might be causing the migraine pain.

Migraine Symptoms

Migraine headaches will typically affect only one side of the head, but it is possible to have a migraine that affects both. Migraine pain will cause an intense pain that can make it very difficult to carry out simply day to day tasks. Some of the symptoms associated with migraine headaches are as follows:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Blurry vision
  • Pain in the temples
  • Pain behind the eye or behind an ear
  • Seeing spots or flashing lights
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Temporary loss of vision

Types of Migraine

The two common types of migraine can be categorised as follows:

Migraine Without Aura
The most common type of migraine is experienced by 70-90% of migraine sufferers. This type is most likely to happen on one side of the head, accompanied by a throbbing or pulsating pain. The likelihood of getting one of these migraines ranges from once a year to several times per week.

Migraine With Aura
If you’re suffering from migraine attacks with aura, it’s likely that you will be experiencing a throbbing headache sometimes accompanied by sight problems, such as seeing dark and coloured spots, sparkles and zigzag lines. You may also feel weakness on one side of the body, and some also find that they are wobbly on their feet. These symptoms occur before the actual headache starts, and in some cases only a mild headache follows or even no headache at all.

It is vital that you see a GP or a qualified pharmacist to get a proper diagnosis when you suspect you might be experiencing regular migraines. Especially when you encounter temporary vision loss or zigzag lines in your field of vision, conditions such as stroke or retinal tear need to be ruled out.

What is a Silent Migraine?

We often associate migraines with intense head pain, but those suffering with a silent migraine could feel no pain at all. A silent migraine will often manifest with the other symptoms associated with migraines, but without the headache. Despite how they sound, silent migraines can still be debilitating.

How to Get Rid of a Headache

Most headaches will disappear relatively quickly, but if you’re looking for options to treat your headache quicker than rest alongside over the counter pain relief medications such as Ibuprofen or Paracetamol, or prescription pain relief are the options available. It is crucial to follow your GP’s guidelines with stronger pain relief so that you don’t get into a cycle that could lead to medication overuse headaches. If you’re on medication for a prolonged period of time, it’s wise to work with your GP to develop a plan to ease off of medication slowly.

How to Stop a Migraine

There is currently no cure for migraines, however a number of migraine relief options are available to tackle some of the symptoms associated with a migraine.

During a migraine attack, laying in a dark room or sleeping has been known to help, while over the counter medications such as ibuprofen and paracetamol can also be used to help with the pain.

How to Prevent a Migraine

While there is no singular cause and cure of migraines, the best approach is to work on the common triggers of migraines. Triggers can vary from person to person, so it’s important to try and decipher what is triggering your migraines and put plans in place to work on that problem. Common migraine triggers can include:

  • Stress
  • Depression or Anxiety
  • Lack of Sleep
  • Hormonal Changes
  • Alcohol
  • A reaction to certain types of food (fermented or pickled foods, cured meats, cheeses, bananas, citrus fruits, avocados)
  • Hunger
  • Caffeine Withdrawal

Tackling the triggers of your migraine can help reduce the regularity. There are some personal measures that you can take to try and prevent migraines, for example, mild exercise like jogging, dancing or swimming for 30 minutes, three times a week helps in relieving the severity of migraines. Alongside regular exercise, improving your diet and finding ways to relax such as meditation can also have a positive impact on your migraines.

Your GP may also recommend prescription medication to help prevent migraines, this can include antidepressants, anti-seizure medication or medication to tackle high blood pressure.

If you are looking for a more natural migraine remedy or preventative method then there is some evidence that people who suffer with frequent headaches could be low on Magnesium and Vitamin D. An improvement in your diet can help address any nutrient deficiencies, but Magnesium supplements may also be an option to improve Magnesium and Vitamin D levels. Another natural herbal remedy for migraines is MigraHerb available here at Tower Health, which is a herbal medicinal product aimed at preventing migraine attacks.

Alternative Treatments

If you’re trying to avoid medications, or you’ve found that they don’t work out for you and you want to try an alternative, there are a number of alternative migraine treatments available. These include:

Acupuncture Acupuncture stems from traditional Chinese medicine and is used to aid a variety of aches and pains by triggering pressure points. Acupuncture has seen positive results in helping with headaches and migraines. Although traditionally carried out with fine needles, you can also administer at home using a product such as TENS device that comes with acupuncture instructions to help. Here at Tower Health you'll also find the Paingone Qalm which is a TENS device specifically created to alleviate migraine pain.

Electrotherapy An electrotherapy device such as Alpha-Stim Aid is a revolutionary drug-free home treatment option that has been known to help treat common migraine related triggers such as stress, anxiety, depression and even pain. In tests it has been found the device can reduce stress, anxiety and depression by 94% in just 5 weeks.

When to Seek Medical Advice

You should seek advice from your GP if you are suffering from regular migraines (more than 5 days a month). Even if your migraines can be controlled with standard over the counter medication, your GP may be able to recommend some preventative treatment that can help decrease the regularity of your migraines.