Many people think that a migraine is just a description of an intense headache, but there are many other things that distinguish a migraine from common tension headaches.

Understanding the difference will help you find the right treatment for your headache.

young woman in big yellow sweater suffering from migraine headache

What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between migraines and tension headaches? Both are types of headaches, but they generally have different origins. A tension headache is caused by tension in your muscles. Tense muscles can be sore in themselves or they can put pressure on other tissues, triggering pain.

Migraines, on the other hand, are more mysterious. They’re still not completely understood. However, leading theories put the origins of migraines in the nerves and veins. Migraine pain is related to irregular function of the brain, nerves, and blood vessels.

Tension headaches are much more common. Migraine headaches are far less common, and affect more women than men. 

Triggers and Causes

You might be able to tell what type of headache you have because of what caused it. Tension headaches usually occur after exercise, exertion, or stress that causes you to tense your muscles.

Although muscle tension and stress can also trigger migraines, migraine triggers are more diverse. This is likely due, at least in part, to the different neurological, chemical, and cardiovascular aspects of migraines. Some migraine triggers include:

  • Certain foods
  • Hormone swings, including those caused by birth control pills
  • Weather changes
  • Smells
  • Low sleep
  • Alcohol
  • Caffeine

When you are trying to figure out what kind of headache you have, try keeping a headache diary. These days, many apps make this easy. Track the possible triggers that could be causing headaches, and if you find a pattern related to any of the above, it’s likely that you have migraines. 

Before the Headache: Warning Signs

Most people with migraines (perhaps 90%) have a family history of migraines. If you know about migraines in your family, then it’s much more likely that you have them, too.

Migraines also often come with a long list of warning signs. Many people with migraine experience some symptoms days before the migraine, called the prodrome, which may include symptoms like:

  • Fatigue or sleepiness with frequent yawning
  • Depression
  • Unusually high energy
  • Irritability
  • Thirst

Not all migraine sufferers experience prodrome, but if you have a prodrome, you likely have migraines.

Some migraine sufferers experience an aura just before their migraines. Auras are usually bright lights, but may be other hallucinations or even vision loss. Auras can affect other senses, too, causing strange smells or sensations in the skin. They can even cause cognitive or language problems.

With tension headaches, the primary warning signs are elevating stress and stress-related behaviors, such as bruxism, clenching and grinding of the teeth. Pain in other muscles, such as the neck or jaw can also come before the headache.

During the Headache: Pain and Other Symptoms

Most people will say that migraines tend to be more intense than tension headaches, but pain is subjective, and it’s hard for people to compare their pain to that of others. With migraines, though, pain tends to be on one side of the head, while for tension headaches pain is on both sides and sometimes all around the head. Migraine pain can even have focused spots of intense pain, behind the eye or ear.

Migraine pain tends to have a throbbing quality. The pain increases and diminishes on a regular cycle, possibly related to the beating of your heart. Tension headache pain tends to be more steady.

Migraines tend to have more additional symptoms related to their pain. These include nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sounds. You might find that even the slightest physical activity can make your headache worse. Aura effects may also persist during the headache.

Headache Duration

Sometimes, headache duration can help you distinguish your headaches. However, there is a great deal of overlap between these types of headaches. 

Tension headaches can be as short as 30 minutes or can last for several days, even a week. Migraine headaches usually last for 4 hours or up to three days. So if your headaches tend to be either very short or very long, they are more likely to be tension headaches.

TMJ Treatment Works for Both

But whether you suffer from migraines or tension headaches, temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) can contribute to the frequency and severity of your headaches. Muscle tension in the jaw can contribute to tension in the head or put pressure on the trigeminal nerve, which triggers migraines. TMJ treatment reduces this tension, making it less likely to trigger headaches.

To learn whether TMJ might be contributing to your headaches in Detroit, please call (248) 480-0085 for an appointment with a TMJ dentist at the Michigan Center for TMJ & Sleep Wellness today.