How can I tell the difference between a migraine and a stroke headache?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
The term "stroke" covers several distinct events that differ in location and cause. Some types of stroke can trigger a headache; others usually don't. To understand the connection, it's helpful to know a bit about the brain and pain. Brain tissue, and the blood vessels embedded in it, doesn't register pain. But the membranes that surround the brain and the blood vessels that run through them do register pain.

The most common kind of stroke—ischemic stroke—occurs when a blood clot blocks an artery in the brain. These don't usually bring on a headache. A hemorrhagic stroke stems from bleeding in the brain. Because bleeding stretches the outer membranes, headache, sometimes a very intense headache, commonly accompanies a hemorrhagic stroke.

A subarachnoid hemorrhage is one type of bleeding stroke. It is generally caused by the rupture of a weakened bulge (an aneurysm) in a blood vessel at the base of the brain. The bleeding triggers a very intense headache, the kind often referred to as "the worst headache you can imagine."

The severity of a headache is a difficult thing to gauge. A better way to tell the difference between a severe headache or migraine and a "stroke headache" is how the pain develops. A migraine usually starts small and takes a while to reach its peak. The headache that accompanies a subarachnoid hemorrhage comes on in seconds, about as fast as a blow to the head. It may render a person momentarily unconscious, something that doesn't happen with migraine.

When it comes to recognizing a stroke, sudden onset of headache is a more important guide than intensity. If a headache appears out of the blue and reaches peak severity in seconds, call 911 for an ambulance to bring you to the nearest emergency room.
Harvard Medical School Stroke: Preventing and treating 'brain attack'

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Harvard Medical School Stroke: Preventing and treating 'brain attack'

Protect your brain: That's the strategy that Harvard doctors recommend in this report on preventing and treating stroke. Whether you've already had a mini stroke, a major stroke, or have been warned...
Classically, stroke headaches are described as being "the worst headache of your life" and are typically associated with other neurological symptoms including asymmetric weakness, facial drooping, difficulty speaking or swallowing or other neurological impairment. This can be, at times, difficult to differentiate from a migraine, which can also have similar symptoms. Typically, migraines are unilateral and pulsating in nature and can be associated with nausea, lasting from two to 24 hours. Other common symptoms include sensitivity to light and sounds. If there is ever any concern of stroke, it is important to seek medical attention immediately.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.