Skip to Main Content

How to tell the difference between a bad headache and a migraine

Headaches can be incredibly intense, derailing our day or even our entire week. If you’re feeling the pain, you may wonder, "Is this a headache or a migraine?"

We’re sharing the key differences between migraines and headaches that you should know. 

How a migraine feels compared to a headache

One of the biggest differences between a headache and a migraine is the sensations you feel. People who have headaches often feel:

  • Pressure and pain in varying frequencies and intensities
  • Pain extended to the neck or face

People with migraines often experience similar signs, along with additional symptoms such as:

  • Throbbing pain
  • Intense, lasting pain
  • Nausea
  • Light sensitivity
  • Dizziness
  • Neck stiffness
  • Seeing colored spots or floaters

Typically, migraines bring on more symptoms than headaches, and those symptoms can be more severe. However, it really depends on what's causing your headache. Severe headaches could also lead to more intense symptoms.

If you aren't exactly sure if you’re experiencing migraine pain or headache pain, call your doctor or head to your nearest Indigo Health and explain the pain. They'll help you determine if you're experiencing a headache or a migraine.

Location of headache pain vs. migraine pain

Migraines and headaches can also have different areas where the pain is centralized.

If you have a headache, you'll likely feel pain and pressure in the forehead and scalp, and sometimes even toward the area where the spine and skull connect.

If you have a migraine, you'll likely feel pain on only one side of your head. You may occasionally feel pain on both sides of the head when you have a migraine, but the pain will likely feel more intense on one side.

If you can clearly identify that the pain is on one side of your head instead of across your forehead or across your entire head, you're likely dealing with a migraine. Each case is different, though, so make sure you monitor for other symptoms.

Key characteristics of migraines

Migraines can disrupt your everyday life

If you have a headache, you can often take ibuprofen or another form of pain relief medication and continue on with your day. You may feel some discomfort in your head, but you can manage to do daily tasks.

If you are experiencing a migraine, there's a slim chance you can do your daily tasks. Migraines can be debilitating. The more severe symptoms like light sensitivity, and nausea may cause you to stay in bed for a couple of days.

Migraines can have a distinct pattern

A typical headache just comes and goes, but a migraine generally goes through four phases. In the beginning, you'll likely experience nausea, irritability, light sensitivity, fatigue and muscle stiffness.

These symptoms may be followed by temporary vision loss, or you may see spots. Numbness and tingling are possible as well.

In the next phase, you can expect throbbing pain on one side of your head, vomiting, light sensitivity and neck pain. During the final phase before your migraine ends, you may feel foggy and irritable. 

Migraines can happen consistently

Some people who get migraines get them once or twice a month, whereas more chronic migraine patients can experience 10 to 15 migraines a month.

It can be tough to determine what's he normal frequency of headaches and migraines, so if you're experiencing more headaches or migraines than usual, contact your doctor or visit Indigo Urgent Care to discuss what's happening and whether you need to seek out a specialist.

Migraines can have certain triggers

A typical headache can have various triggers, including head injuries, diet and a lack of sleep. It all depends on how your body reacts to these changes.

Migraines, on the other hand, can more easily be traced back to certain triggers. These include hormonal changes, stress, allergies and a lack of sleep. It's also worth noting that if someone in your family suffers from migraines, you may be more likely to experience them as well.

Migraines can last 4 to 72 hours

If you're feeling sick and congested, a typical headache may last as long as you're congested. If you have a recent head injury, you could have a headache for a couple of days.

Migraines, however, tend to last between four and 72 hours, if left untreated. The duration may vary from person to person, but that's what's considered the usual timeline of migraines.

If you have a migraine that lasts longer than 72 hours, or you have a prolonged headache, you should contact your doctor or visit your nearest Indigo Urgent Care and explain what's going on.

When to see a doctor for your headache or migraine

It can be difficult to determine if you're experiencing a headache or a migraine. If you're confused about what could be happening, you can visit Indigo Urgent Care and receive a professional diagnosis. Our providers can give you a clear answer and path forward to manage your pain effectively.

Indigo Urgent Care is open every day, 8 am to 8 pm for in-person appointments. You can also be seen from the comfort of your phone with  Indigo Online Care, 24/7.

A better way to get better.

Health care that’s friendly, easy, and centered around you.

Find My Indigo