Nearly all of us have suffered from a headache at some point. However, the headache you experience may not be the same as someone else’s. Headaches are usually classified as either primary or secondary headaches. Secondary headaches are usually the result of an underlying illness. Most headaches experienced are usually primary headaches. The three most common types of primary headache are tension, migraine and cluster headaches.

To understand more about the differences between headaches and migraine, we will explain what symptoms and causes the two different conditions have.

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What causes migraine?

The exact cause of a migraine is not yet known, but it is thought that migraines are the result of abnormal brain activity which temporarily alters nerve signals, chemicals and blood vessels in the brain.

Around half of all people who experience migraines also have a close relative with the condition, suggesting that genes may play a role. For some disorders, genes play a particularly important role and migraine is a good example. We know this from clinical practice because we often see migraines running in families, and this is confirmed in formal scientific studies. In most cases a single gene defect or mutation probably does not cause a migraine, instead, it results from several different genes all coming together.

There might also be some triggers that can make the attacks worse. There are many possible migraine triggers that have been suggested, including hormonal, emotional, physical, dietary, environmental and medical factors. These triggers are very individual but it may help to keep a diary to see if you can identify a consistent trigger.

Common symptoms:

  • feeling nauseous
  • being sick
  • sensitivity to light or sound (this is why lots of migraine sufferers like to rest in a dark and quiet room)

Migraine sufferers may occasionally experience other symptoms such as:

  • poor concentration
  • feeling either very hot or very cold
  • stomach pain
  • diarrhoea

Migraine symptoms can last anywhere between four hours and up to three days in very severe instances. If you have had a particularly bad migraine you might feel very tired afterwards, so it’s important to get plenty of rest.

What cause headaches?

Headache is an almost universal experience; most of us have some kind of a headache at some point in our lives. The classification system of headaches used by the medical profession is one of the longest in medicine, with many types and causes.

Headaches are unpleasant pains in your head that can cause pressure and ache. The pain can range from mild to severe, and they usually occur on both sides of your head. Some specific areas where headaches can occur include the forehead, temples, and back of the neck. A headache can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a week.

One of the most common causes is called tension which is a type of headache that is the most common – 90% of all headaches fall into this category. This headache has triggers that include stress, muscle strain, and anxiety. Tension headaches generally feel like a tight band of pain around your head. And might be caused by tender muscles in the head and neck. When you are stressed or tired, the muscles in your head and neck become sore and tender. When these muscles become tense, the pain travels up to your head and you feel it as a headache.

How do I know which type of headache I have?

If you experience recurring (regular) headaches it is helpful to understand the type of headache which you have in order to manage your condition effectively. If you get regular headaches, it is important to see your GP and get a proper diagnosis. Diagnosis will depend upon your doctor taking a medical history, possibly referring you for tests and narrowing down the range of possible causes for your headaches.

There is a difference between a headache and a migraine headache. Headaches are not usually accompanied by other symptoms associated with migraine. However, it is quite likely that if you have migraine you will also experience other headaches.


Migraine headaches tend to have some marked differences from other headaches, which helps your doctor determine which type of headache you have. There are also several different types of migraine headaches. In general terms, migraine attacks are experienced as a headache of at least moderate severity usually on one side of the head and occurring with other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and noise (though some people experience a migraine without a headache).

A headache is usually made worse by physical activity. Migraine attacks usually last from 4 to 72 hours and in most cases, there is complete freedom from symptoms between attacks.


Headaches can vary greatly in their duration, cause and severity. A hangover headache, for example, goes within a few hours and headaches associated with an infectious illness improve when the illness is over.

It is really important to identify the type of a headache you have so you can get the right sort of treatment and advice. A headache can be the result of a whole variety of factors such as head injuries, infections and other medical conditions.

When should I see my GP?

As mentioned above if you get regular headaches, it is important to see your GP and get a proper diagnosis.

Most headaches are minor and are not a sign of a more serious illness. However, you should see your doctor immediately if:

  • Your headache is the result of a head injury
  • You develop problems with your vision such as blurriness
  • Headache symptoms become severe
  • Headache is accompanied by other symptoms such as fever, vomiting weakness, slurred speech or confusion.

If you are concerned please speak to your doctor or pharmacist.