NorthShore’s online source for timely health and wellness news, inspiring patient stories and tips to lead a healthy life.
Migraines and headaches come in different varieties and severities. More than 45 million Americans suffer from some form of migraine, tension or another headache type. Are you wondering which one you’re suffering from?
Migraines, not to be confused with headaches, last between four to 72 hours and they are categorized as “with auras” or “without auras.” Migraines can be severely debilitating—they are characterized by one or more symptoms such as throbbing, pulsating pain on one side of the head, sensitivity to light and sound or by flashing lights, loss of vision possibly causing nausea or vomiting.
One of the biggest things that distinguish a migraine from a headache is they are associated with fatigue, and can drain you of energy.
Headaches are similar to migraines because they also cause pain, but they do not cause symptoms like nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to lights or smells. Pain associated with tension-type headaches tends to be more chronic and steady. Migraines are more of a throbbing quality.
Angela Noelle Mark, MD, Neurology, explains the different types:
Migraine with Aura (Complicated Migraine)For those who experience migraines, auras can be one of the initial signs a headache is right around the corner. Auras can include blind spots or blank patches in the vision; zig-zag lines in your visual field; strange, sparkling or flashing lights; blurry vision or halos around objects. Other symptoms can include being confused, difficulty speaking, pins and needles in an arm or leg, unpleasant smells, or stiffness in the shoulders, neck or body.
Auras can occur before or during a migraine and can last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.
Migraine without Aura (Classical Migraine)If you aren’t experiencing any kind of sensory disturbance, then you’re probably not experiencing migraine with an aura. These account for about 75% of migraines. Symptoms may include pain on one side of the head, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea and/or vomiting.
Silent MigraineThis is a migraine that occurs without an actual headache; it’s called an Acephalgic migraine. It may sound peculiar, because usually we associate migraines with head pain, but in reality, a migraine is a neurological disorder that encompasses many more symptoms than just throbbing, pulsating or sharp pains. The most common symptom people will experience is vision loss in half of one eye or alterations in color perception. Adults or children can experience this type of migraine, but normally its more common in people over the age of 50.
Ocular MigraineA rarer type, ocular migraines, (aka retinal migraines) are characterized by twinkling lights called Scintillations, areas of decreased or lost vision called Scotoma, or even temporary blindness. Symptoms of an ocular migraine cause visual disturbance in only one eye, rather than migraines with auras which affect both eyes. The reason is that with an ocular migraine, the symptoms come from the eye. With a migraine with aura, symptoms come from the brain. Ocular headaches can last anywhere between five to 60 minutes.
Within 60 minutes of the visual symptoms beginning, the headache phase of a retinal migraine may begin, and it can include moderate to severe pulsing and throbbing, increased sensitivity to light, and increased intolerance to sound.
Chronic MigraineThese migraines are classified “chronic” if you experience them more than 15 days in a month. Typically, you will experience the common symptoms of a migraine, but some days could be better or worse than others. Some days you could experience a “tension headache,” or a “sinus headache.” These migraines usually affect one side or both sides of the head; have a pulsating or throbbing sensation, cause nausea or vomiting, or sensitivity to light and sound.
Allergy or Sinus HeadacheThis is a condition where the cavities around the nasal passages become inflamed, due to allergies. You may feel pain in the cheekbones, forehead or bridge of the nose. Common symptoms are stuffiness, nasal discharge and/or facial swelling. Allergies cause sinus congestion, which then leads to this type of headache pain.
Ice Pick HeadacheThese are marked by brief stabs of pain that only last a few seconds, but can last up to a minute. Generally, you will feel them in the front or sides of the head. The exact cause of these types of headaches is unknown. Treatment is often not required due to its brief nature, but evaluation by your physician is recommended if it’s frequent.
Tension HeadachSometimes referred to as an “everyday” headache, they are the most common type and usually manifest as a constant ache around the head, at the temples or the back of the neck. They are usually mild to moderate and are often described as feeling a dull, aching sensation all over the head, that isn’t throbbing. You may experience tenderness around your neck, forehead, scalp or shoulder muscles.
Cluster HeadacheThese are recurring headaches that occur in cycles. They begin suddenly, and can be severe and often debilitating, lasting from 15 minutes to three hours. They usually consist of severe headaches on one side of the head and localizes to the face particularly around and behind the eye. You may experience symptoms like red and teary eyes, a runny or stuffy nose, flushing or sweating of the face, or droopy eyelids.
Cervicogenic HeadacheThis is classified as a secondary headache because it is only caused by an underlying condition like neck injuries, infections or severe high blood pressure. Pain normally starts in the neck and back of the head and then radiates toward the front of the head. You may experience a reduced range of motion in the neck, pain and stiffness in the neck, pain around the eyes, or radiating pain in the shoulder or arm on one side.