Is it a headache or migraine?

Caroline Cassidy

We all get headaches from time to time, but when the pain is severe, is accompanied by visual disturbances or feelings of sickness, you could be experiencing a migraine.

Woman with a headache
Woman with a headache

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Classic tension headaches cause general pain in the head and neck, often accompanied by a feeling of tightness. A tension headache will normally respond quickly to a standard painkiller such as paracetamol or aspirin and, in most cases, will only last for a short period of time.

A migraine extends beyond a tension headache, and is a neurological condition that accounts for 20 per cent of all headaches. It is caused when the blood vessels in the head and neck constrict, which results in a decreased flow of blood to these vessels. This results in a range of very unpleasant and painful symptoms.

A migraine is usually experienced as severe throbbing pain, often on one side of the head, along with other symptoms such as flashing lights or shapes in the eyes, nausea and sickness, and sensitivity to light and sound. It can last anywhere from a few hours to a whole day - and, in some cases, up to two or three days.

Medical treatments include over-the-counter painkillers, some of which are designed specifically for migraine. Ask your pharmacist about tablets you take at the very onset of a migraine, as these may be able to stop an attack in its tracks.

A doctor may also prescribe anti-migraine tablets or beta blockers if other remedies are ineffective. Many sufferers find that sleep or relaxing in a quiet darkened room can help.

There are several common triggers. Many sufferers find that stress or tension can set off an attack. Food is also a common trigger and chocolate, nuts, cheese and red wine are among the most common food-related causes. For some people tobacco smoke, lack of sleep and bright lights can bring on an attack.

Sufferers of headaches and migraines often find that alternative medicines or natural therapies can help. Some believe that the herbal treatment Feverfew can help manage both headaches and migraines. Fresh air and exercise also play an important role in preventing attacks.

Sufferers should note the dates of their headaches or migraines, and write down when the attack began and how long it lasted. Other factors should also be recorded, such as food and drink consumed and activities undertaken. Women should also make a note of where they are in their menstrual cycle.

In the majority of cases, headaches and migraine are painful but non-threatening episodes. However, they can also be a symptom of a more significant condition, and a doctor should be consulted if they are accompanied by problems with memory or concentration; convulsions; loss of feeling in the arms or legs; severe stiffness in the neck; and persistent visual disturbance.

Your doctor will ask you about your diet and lifestyle, and any family illness. If you've been keeping a diary of your headaches/migraine or suspect any particular triggers, do pass this information on to your GP. If they suspect a more serious condition, you may be referred to a specialist for scans and x-rays.

Do you suffer with migraines? Have you found anything that helps? Leave a comment below...