Migraine or headache

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Migraine or Headache?

A migraine is more than just a bad headache

Migraine headaches are a neurological disorder characterized by imbalances in brain chemistry.1, 2

Although the exact cause of migraine headaches isn't completely understood, medical researchers believe that migraine headaches are caused by altered blood flow and abnormal levels of naturally produced substances in the brain. When certain arteries dilate, blood flow is increased and cause pain producing chemicals to be released. Additionally, the dilation causes an increase in the natural substance levels, such as prostaglandins and serotonin. This makes the blood vessels lining the brain swell and creates pressure on nearby nerves. These nerves send pain signals to the body that are typically felt around the eye or temple region and can extend to the face, sinus, jaw, or neck.1, 2

Your migraines may be inherited

If someone in your family gets migraine headaches, then it's not surprising you get them as well. That's because the abnormalities in the brain that can lead to migraines appear to be genetically inherited.3 In fact, 70% to 80% of people who get migraines have a family history of the disorder.2

Migraines vs. tension headaches

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, migraines tend to be more severe than tension headaches.1

You can compare common migraine symptoms vs. tension headache symptoms below. However, be sure to consult your doctor about headache diagnosis and treatment.

Migraine vs. bad tension-type headache1
Symptom Tension Headache Migraine Headache
Intensity of pain
Mild to moderate check check
Moderate to severe   check
Quality of pain
Pounding or throbbing   check
Distracting, dull tightness check  
Steady ache check check
Location of pain
One side of head   check
Both sides of head check check
Other associated symptoms
Nausea   check
Sensitivity to light and/or sound   check
Aura before onset of headache   check

Only a doctor can determine if your headache is a migraine. Please consult your doctor about headache diagnosis and treatment.

Only one in five people with migraine experience aura.1

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  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Migraine Fact Sheet. Available at: http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/migraine.cfm Last accessed July 2011.
  2. National Headache Foundation. Migraine Topic Sheet. Available at http://www.headaches.org/education/Headache_Topic_Sheets/Migraine Last accessed July 2011.
  3. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. NINDS Migraine Information Page. Available at: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/migraine/migraine.htm Last accessed July 2011.