Migraines and Headaches Diagnosis

How to Tell the Difference Between a Migraine and a Headache

If you have occasional headaches that are mild in nature, you probably have tension headaches. On the other extreme, if you have intense headaches with pounding pain that incapacitates you, it is probably a migraine diagnosis.

If your headache is moderate, it is hard to be sure what kind of headache it is, and your headache diagnosis may be more complex. You and your doctor may need some time to know if your moderate headache is a mild migraine, a strong tension headache, or a symptom of another health condition.

Headaches Are a Popular Symptom
Headaches are frequently caused by another illness, and they disappear when that illness goes away. They often accompany colds, the flu, and injuries. If you start or stop a medication, your body may complain by producing a headache.

In some situations, your headache is a sign of a more serious illness. You should call your doctor, or visit an emergency room or urgent care clinic if your headache is also accompanied by:

  • any combination of confusion, sluggishness, nausea, or a head injury
  • a fever with pain when you bend your head forward
  • blurry vision
  • severe pain in one eye
  • pain and sensitivity around your cheeks and eyes

Diagnosing a Migraine
You and your doctor can distinguish between a strong tension headache and a light migraine. Your visit will start with a physical exam that includes capturing or updating your health history.

Together, you and your doctor will explore the symptoms that separate migraines from other headaches with questions such as:

  • Do you experience a pre-headache period where you are abnormally fatigued or feel strange?
  • What else do you experience when you feel the headache coming on?
  • What makes your headaches worse?
  • Do you get nauseated or vomit with your headaches?
  • How often have you been experiencing headaches?
  • How long do your headaches typically last?
  • How do your headaches affect your vision? What do you see?
  • Do your headaches give you the chills or make you sweat?
  • What else do you feel or experience during your headache, especially in the rest of your body?

If these questions lead you to describe migraine symptoms, your doctor will probably treat you for migraines with self-help strategies and a triptan medication. If the treatments reduce your migraine pain and discomfort, you can be confident of a migraine diagnosis.

If your answers do not fit the migraine headache profile, your doctor may conclude that you suffer from strong tension headaches. He or she may refer you to a neurologist for additional exams and tests, to make sure that your headaches are not related to another health condition.

Updated on: 11/19/15
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