Migraines vs Tension Headaches: What’s the Difference?

Do you know the difference between migraines vs tension headaches? Recognizing a migraine headache from a tension headache is important. Knowing the difference can mean faster relief with proper treatments.

Tension headaches are very common. Chronic tension headaches are associated with contracted muscles of the neck and scalp. Episodic tension headaches are usually caused by stressful events. These are usually moderate intensity and responsive to nonprescription drugs.

Other headaches that may fall under this category includes cluster and sinus headaches. Cluster headaches can be severely painful and come in waves. A person with cluster headaches will experience a cycle of headaches followed by periods free of headaches. Sinus headaches are often confused as a migraine. Sinus headaches include sinus infection symptoms like facial pressure, stuffy nose, cough and congestion.

According to medical research, migraine headaches are caused by incorrect blood flow and atypical levels of a naturally produced chemical in the brain. Patients with migraines often experience the following symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Temple pain
  • Intense pain behind and eye or ear

Some patients have reported additional sensory symptoms at least 30 minutes prior to a migraine attack including:

  • Feeling less alert of lack of concentration
  • Change in sense of smell, touch or taste
  • Tingling or numbness in legs, arms or face

Intensity Levels

Both types of headaches are painful. The intensity level of a migraine is way higher than a standard headache. Pain from a migraine feels like it is coming from the inside of your skull instead of your scalp.

Duration of Pain

Tension headaches typically end within a few hours. Migraine headaches can last for days at a time.

Migraines Have Phases

Those who suffer from migraines vs tension headaches will notice their migraine symptoms follow a certain pattern.

  1. Mood swings, lethargy, and an increased need to use the bathroom.
  2. A neurological event may occur 30 to 60 minutes before a migraine. Symptoms may include sensitivity to sound and light. Spotty vision may occur along with seeing flashing lights.
  3. Migraines become prominent.
  4. The pain subsides.


Tension headaches may be caused by stress or lack of sleep. Migraines are a neurological condition with no one cause. There may be a combination of factors including:

  • Gender – Women are up to four times more likely to have migraines than men.
  • Change in hormones
  • Allergies
  • Nerve damage
  • Family history
  • Environmental causes

Treatments for Tension Headaches and Migraines

Tension headaches can often be treated with non-prescription medication including acetaminophen, ibuprofen and aspirin.

Treating migraines are a bit different. Migraines can be reduced with the help of medications including antinausea medicines, NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, aspirin and acetaminophen) and triptans.

You can also take the necessary steps to prevent headaches from occurring. Discover your triggers and try to avoid them. Lower your stress levels, change your diet, recognize environmental triggers and/or get adequate sleep.


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