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How can I tell if I have a migraine or just a bad headache?

Compared with migraine, tension-type headache is generally less severe and rarely disabling.

Although fatigue and stress can bring on both tension and migraine headaches, migraines can be triggered by certain foods, changes in the body's hormone levels, and even changes in the weather.

There also are differences in how types of headaches respond to treatment with medicines. Although some over-the-counter drugs used to treat tension-type headaches sometimes help migraine headaches, the drugs used to treat migraine attacks do not work for tension-type headaches for most people.

You can't tell the difference between a migraine and a tension-type headache by how often they occur. Both can occur at irregular intervals. Also, in rare cases, both can occur daily or almost daily.

The answer is based on source information from the National Women's Health Information Center.

Migraines typically are recurrent severe headaches located on one side of the head and throbbing in quality. Associated symptoms include nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. People are also typically unable to perform their normal activities including working out. In contrast, a bad headache will typically not be recurrent and will not have the associated symptoms. However, if you are concerned about the severity of your headache, you should see your physician for evaluation.
This quick test simulates a reversal of the narrowing (constriction) of blood vessels that occurs during migraine headaches.
  • If you are currently experiencing a headache, press your fingers on both temples, or have someone press on your temples.
  • After one to two minutes, release the pressure on your temples.
  • If you feel better with pressure against your temples and worse when the pressure is removed, your current headache has an 80% likelihood of being a migraine.

Run of the mill headaches are not migraines, but if everyday activities trigger severe headaches, they might be migraines, says Mark Green, MD. Learn how to tell the difference in this video.


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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.