Headache vs. Migraine: How Can I Tell the Difference?

Differentiating Migraine and Vertigo

Headaches and migraines share an obvious connection: head pain and pressure that can be very severe.   At some point in their lives, nearly everyone will experience a head pain of some sort.  It can be a stress-induced tension headache or a headache brought on by dehydration.  Migraines are, unfortunately, also extremely common.  They impact over 1 billion people worldwide.  Being able to differentiate between a migraine and another type of headache becomes important when it comes to exploring options for care.  When head pain crops up, how do you know whether you have a common headache or a migraine?

Headache Types:

A headache can range from a mild annoyance to a severe, debilitating pain.  Typically, the pain affects both sides of the head, including the forehead, temples, and back of the neck below the skull (your occiput).  A headache can last a half an hour, or it can go on for days.  There are many different headache types.  Of the many types, these three are among the most common:

Tension headache

Tension headaches are generally a mild to moderate dull ache in the head.  They are often described as if a tight band is squeezing the head, as if you were wearing a hat that was fitted too tightly.  A person may also feel scalp tenderness and tight neck and shoulder muscles.  Despite the fact that it is the most prevalent headache type, its causes are not well understood.  A prevailing thought used to be that abnormal muscle contractions in the face, scalp, and neck were to blame. However, newer research suggests that people who suffer from tension headaches may have an increased sensitivity to pain.  Stress is the most common trigger.

Sinus headache

This type of head pain can often be confused with migraines.  Your sinuses are air-filled spaces that lie behind your cheek bones, forehead, and the nose.  Your sinuses can become inflamed or infected and can cause a buildup of pressure in your head, causing a headache.  The pain of a sinus headache is deep and constant, and can become worse with sudden movements of your head.  Sometimes, sinus headaches can come along with other symptoms that will indicate that it's not a migraine, such as a runny nose, fever, and congestion in the ears.

Cluster headache

This can be so intense that they can wake you in the middle of the night. Its pain is usually centered around one eye or on one side of your head, also making it difficult to distinguish from a migraine.  Cluster headaches are so named because they come in cycles or patterns.  These cluster periods can last from a few weeks to a few months, followed by a headache-free period of remission.

Migraines: A Neurological Condition

Migraines differ from other headache types.  A growing body of research now points to migraines as being a neurological disorder involving chemicals and pathways in the brain and nervous system.  Aside from the headache component, migraine sufferers also cope with a host of other neurologically-based symptoms.  Hallmarks of a migraine episode include:

  • Severe, throbbing head pain – this pain is typically unilateral, meaning that it is isolated to only one side of the head.  However, 1/3 of migraine sufferers report that their head pain is on both sides of the head.
  • Visual disturbances – these disturbances in vision, called auras, can appear as sparks of light, wavy lines, floating lights, or zigzags.
  • Sensory changes – numbness and tingling can travel up the arms into the face.
  • Trouble with speech – some migraine sufferers can have difficulty producing words, even when they know exactly what they want to say.  They may also have trouble understanding what others are saying during a migraine attack.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Heightened sensitivity of the senses – during a migraine attack, people may experience severe hypersensitivity to outside stimuli, including light, sound, and smell.

Different Causes, Common Solution

Despite all of their differences, migraines and other types of headaches can actually have the same root cause.  Your central nervous system, which consists of your brain and spinal cord, is the master control system for your body.  It controls things like muscle tension, the constriction and dilation of blood vessels, and all of your senses.  Dysfunction with any of these normal body processes can lead to the formation of headaches or migraines.  

One of the ways that normal nervous system function can be impeded is by a spinal misalignment.  The vertebrae of the spine, which is responsible for protecting the nervous system, can misalign as a result of an accident, injury, or wear and tear.  Upper cervical chiropractic care is a niche within chiropractic care that focuses on optimizing nervous system function by focusing on the atlas, the uppermost vertebra in the spine.  The atlas is very important because it protects the brainstem, the part of your central nervous system that coordinates many of the life-sustaining functions such as heart and lung function.

The Role of Upper Cervical Care

Many headache and migraine patients have been turning to upper cervical care in order to identify the underlying cause of their condition.  If an atlas misalignment continues to disrupt normal brain-body communication, the end result can be the development of chronic migraines.  If that is the case, upper cervical chiropractic care can be the solution to a problem that is typically only able to be managed symptomatically.  In other words, by correcting the cause, upper cervical chiropractic can provide a natural, long-lasting solution.

A research study that observed 101 patients with various headache types supports the efficacy of upper cervical care.  Of the 101 people, 85 saw their headaches completely disappear under care.  Another 12 reported that their headaches had greatly reduced.  These remarkable results were all accomplished by gentle upper cervical chiropractic adjustments, without the need for medications or other invasive methods.







Elster EL, Upper Cervical Chiropractic Care for a Patient with Chronic Migraine Headaches with an Appendix Summarizing an Additional 100 Headache Cases. J Vert Sublux Res 2003; Aug 3:1-10.

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The content and materials provided in this web site are for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to supplement or comprise a medical diagnosis or other professional opinion, or to be used in lieu of a consultation with a physician or competent health care professional for medical diagnosis and/or treatment. All content and materials including research papers, case studies and testimonials summarizing patients' responses to care are intended for educational purposes only and do not imply a guarantee of benefit. Individual results may vary, depending upon several factors including age of the patient, severity of the condition, severity of the spinal injury, and duration of time the condition has been present.