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Migraine Vs Tension Headache: What’s The Difference?

Nov 08, 2022
Migraine Vs Tension Headache: What’s The Difference?
If you suffer from headaches more than once a month, you are not alone. According to a recent study, 52% of the global population suffers from active headache disorder. Among the two most common headaches were migraines, which affected 14% of.....

If you suffer from headaches more than once a month, you are not alone.

According to a recent study, 52% of the global population suffers from active headache disorder. Among the two most common headaches were migraines, which affected 14% of sufferers, and tension headaches, which affected 26% of them.

Migraine vs tension headache: while they do have some similarities, they each have unique triggers, symptoms, and treatments. It’s important to understand their similarities and differences.

Keep reading to find out how you can determine which headache you are suffering from, and what the best treatments are for each.


Both migraine headaches and tension headaches are considered to be primary headaches. These types of headaches are not caused by another underlying condition or disease. With primary headaches, the pain may be disabling and difficult to manage; these headaches are generally not dangerous.

Primary headaches come from an inflammatory response around the head and neck, including inflammation of the nerves, blood vessels, and muscles.


Some symptoms of migraine headaches and tension headaches overlap, but there are differences between the two.

Some similarities include the presence of nasal congestion and sensitivity to light (although less common in tension headaches). Both migraines and tension headaches range in severity and tend to come on slowly. They build up in intensity, unlike sudden onset headaches, like a thunderclap headache.

Migraine-Specific Symptoms

Several symptoms are specific to migraines. Here are some of the more common ones.

  • Pain ranging from moderate to severe
  • Pain that is pulsating or throbbing
  • Pain that worsens when undertaking physical activity
  • Pain on one or both sides of the head
  • Pain behind the temples or eyes
  • Feeling nauseous or vomiting
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Increased sensitivity to light, smell, or sound

Migraines may also include a prodrome phase or aura phase before the headache stage. This may come in extreme tiredness, difficulty concentrating, or irritability.


Many people who suffer from migraines experience migraines with aura. Experiencing an aura has a visual impact such as seeing bright spots or flashes. Sufferers may also experience blind spots in their vision, blurred vision, and even loss of vision.

Auras typically affect the migraine sufferer with visual symptoms. However, a migraine with an aura may also magnify other physical senses or symptoms.

Symptoms of Tension Headaches

Several symptoms are indicative of a tension headache. Here are the main ones.

  • Pain ranging from mild to moderate
  • Pain on both sides of the head
  • Feeling pressure, a dull ache, or tightness around the head
  • Neck pain
  • Tenderness or soreness on the scalp, neck, or back of the head
  • Physical activity does not worsen a tension headache
  • Nausea and vomiting do not present with tension headaches


While some triggers have been discovered, research on migraines and tension headaches has done little to understand what causes them. Despite this, doctors have been able to single out some likely triggers and factors that influence these headaches and cause people debilitating chronic pain.

Causes of Migraines

When it comes to migraines, doctors are aware that several factors can influence them. Certain genetic and environmental factors are often noted as potential causes. Migraines can also be triggered by low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that has an important role in nerve communication.

Migraines are twice as common in women, clueing researchers to the fact that female hormones may play a significant role.

Other factors that are suspected to trigger migraines are bright, flashing lights, loud sounds, strong smells, certain food additives like MSG (monosodium glutamate), overuse of certain medications, and changes in hormonal levels.

Causes of Tension Headaches

The causes of tension headaches are less clear. Some suspected causes include a tight neck or back caused by stress, eye strain, and dental problems.

Some factors may cause both migraines and tension headaches, such as:

  • Anxiety and stress
  • Lack of sufficient sleep; fatigue
  • Alcohol use
  • Excessive smoking
  • Skipping meals


Migraines and tension headaches can benefit from several different treatments. These treatments can be medication or lifestyle changes or can integrate both.

Treatment of Migraines

Two groups of medicines can benefit people who suffer from migraines, relieve their symptoms and prevent future attacks. These two groups are abortive medicines and preventative medicines.

Abortive Medicines: These medicines can be taken by the migraine sufferer as soon as they feel a migraine coming on. They can use them to reduce or stop the symptoms at onset. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), ergotamine, and triptans.

Preventative Medicines: These medicines reduce the severity, frequency, and distress related to the symptoms of migraines. These include beta-blockers, angiotensin receptor blockers, and tricyclic antidepressants, among others.

Other Migraine Treatments

Migraine sufferers may get relief from resting in a quiet and dark room. Cold packs on the forehead and staying hydrated may also help with migraine symptoms.

Sometimes, if medications do not help, doctors may prescribe acupuncture treatments or transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

Treatment of Tension Headaches

Tension headaches have different symptoms, causes, and treatments that differ from migraine treatments. These are some of the options known to help with tension headaches.

  • Specific medications like NSAIDs and TCAs
  • Practicing yoga or other relaxing therapies
  • Breathing techniques
  • Develop healthy sleep habits
  • The use of low and firm pillows
  • Heat or cold packs on the neck


When it comes to your headache, especially migraine vs tension headache, it’s essential to recognize the differences. While both can negatively impact a headache sufferer’s life, they have unique symptoms, triggers, and treatments.

For help getting your headaches under control, contact the pain management professionals at Integrated Pain Consultants. We have offices in Scottsdale, Mesa, and Phoenix, Arizona to best serve our clients all over the state of Arizona. Let us help you prevent and treat your headaches to get your healthy life back.