Many people believe that a migraine is just a bad headache. But migraines are a much different type of periodic headache that is accompanied by a variety of other nasty symptoms. Anyone who suffers from migraines (called a migraineur) will be able to gruesomely describe the difference in terms of where the pain is, a loss of balance or coordination and the aura.
The Mayo Clinic warns that any headache or migraine that lasts for over 72 continuous hours be treated as a medical emergency. As soon as the clock ticks to hour 73, call the ambulance. You could be suffering a stroke, a brain aneurysm or something else that needs immediate attention.
Area of Pain
The ancient Greeks called migraine “hemikrania”, which gives modern people a good idea of why migraines are different from headaches. “Hemi” mean half and “krania” means skull. So, “hemikrania” was “half a skull.” The most common symptom of many types of migraine is incredible pain on one half of the head.
In contrast, headaches are often felt on both sides of the head. In tension-type headaches (the most common type of headache), the pain often extends down the neck and into the shoulders. People with headaches can often function (just barely). But the pain is so bad with migraines that normal activities are impossible.
More pain comes from a heightening of the senses. Although many migraineurs suddenly become very sensitive to light, some migraineurs become sensitive in all of their senses. This means that even the slightest whisper sounds thunderously loud and even a sip of water may be nauseating.
Sense of Balance
With many types of migraines, the only way to get relief is to lie down. Standing up, driving, bending over, going to the toilet – these all become nearly impossible because of the pain. For some migraineurs, the pain isn’t the worst part – it’s the loss of coordination, dizziness (where you feel as if you are spinning) or vertigo (where you feel as if the room is spinning.)
Some types of migraine, such as vestibular migraine or hemiplegic migraine, cause attacks that may make the migraineur pass out or have great difficulty in speaking. MAGNUM, the National Migraine Association, recommends that anyone diagnosed with these types of migraines should wear a bracelet naming their condition at all times just in case of emergency.
In contrast, people with headaches may feel no relief when they lay down. Sufferers of sinus headaches often feel worse when they lie down because their sinuses are so inflamed. People with headaches are usually able to walk without feeling as if the world is suddenly whirling about.
According to “Migraines For Dummies” (For Dummies; 2003) only 20% of migraineurs suffer from what is called “classical migraine” or “migraine with aura.” But migraineurs may experience auras for only some attacks. There is a type of migraine called “silent migraine” where the main symptom is an aura, but head pain rarely comes.
Auras are disturbing and disorientating, especially if they are visual. Auras can be visual distortions of flashes of lights that no one can see but you. The world may appear as if it is underwater. You may hear annoying sounds that no one else can hear. You may also smell odors like garbage when there is no garbage present. In contrast, people with headaches do not get auras.
“Migraines For Dummies.” Diane Stafford and Jennifer Shoquist, MD. For Dummies; 2003
“Menstrual Migraine.” Susan Hutchinson, et al. Oxford University Press; 2008.
Online Entomology Dictionary. “Entymology of Migraine.” http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=migraine
MAGNUM: The National Migraine Association. “Treatment & Management.” http://www.migraines.org/treatment/
Mayo Clinic “Migraine: Symptoms.” http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/migraine-headache/DS00120/DSECTION=symptoms
Author also has suffered from migraines for over 20 years