What is the difference between a headache and a migraine?

The term headache disorder encompasses a wide variety of nervous system conditions that cause painful symptoms in the head. Headache disorders include headaches and migraine. Most people experience a headache at one point in their lives.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), headache disorders affect an estimated 50 percent of adults around the world.

Some people may have trouble differentiating between a migraine, which is a chronic condition, and a common headache.

Migraine vs. headache

Man with headache or migraine holds head leaning against the vehicle window.

Headaches and migraines are nervous system conditions that can cause pain in the head.

Headaches cause pain in the head, face, or upper neck, and can vary in frequency and intensity.

A migraine is an extremely painful primary headache disorder.

Migraines usually produce symptoms that are more intense and debilitating than headaches.

Some types of migraines do not cause head pain, however.

What is a headache?

There are many different types of headaches, which experts have classified into two main groups — primary and secondary.

Primary headaches refer to independent conditions that cause pain in the head, face, or neck. Examples of primary headaches include migraines and tension headaches.

Secondary headaches occur as the result of another medical condition, such as an infection, stress, or medication overuse.

Primary headaches

Types of primary headaches include:

Tension-type headache

Tension-type headaches are common primary headache disorder that affect around 42 percent of adults worldwide.

Tension-type headaches feel like a band of intense pressure around the head.

Doctors classify tension-type headaches as episodic or chronic. Episodic tension-type headaches happen between 10 and 15 days per month. Chronic tension-type headaches occur more often and may cause soreness in the scalp.

Several factors can cause tension-type headaches. These can include:

  • clenching the jaw
  • hunger
  • depression or anxiety
  • lack of sleep
  • sleep apnea
  • arthritis
  • bending or straining the neck
  • poor posture
  • stress

Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches cause severe pain on one side of the head, often behind the eye. These headaches come in clusters, meaning multiple headaches occur around the same time every day for several weeks.

Cluster headaches occur in cycles of recurring headaches followed by periods without headaches.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cluster headaches usually last 6 to 12 weeks. Cluster headaches tend to affect males more often than females.

Symptoms of cluster headaches include:

  • severe pain on one side of the head
  • pain behind the eye
  • red, watery eyes
  • sweating
  • congestion
  • restlessness or agitation
  • changes in heart rate


Hemicrania are persistent headaches that fluctuate in severity. These headaches usually affect the same side of the head. People can have daily, or chronic, hemicrania headaches.

Other people might experience periods of recurring headaches followed by headache-free periods.

Other symptoms of hemicrania headaches include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • sensitivity to light and sound
  • watery eyes
  • redness or irritation of the eyes
  • sweating
  • congestion
  • swollen eyelids

Secondary headache disorders

Illnesses and chronic medical conditions that affect the nervous system can cause secondary headaches.

Causes of secondary headaches include:

  • sleep disorders
  • brain tumors
  • strokes
  • withdrawal from medications or drugs
  • head trauma
  • inflammation
  • seizures
  • leaking spinal fluid
  • physical deformations of the head, neck, or spine

What is a migraine?

A migraine is a type of primary headache disorder that can cause severe pain and other symptoms. People with migraine may experience recurring symptoms that doctors call episodes or attacks.

Headaches are only one symptom of migraines, and they can range in severity. Migraine can cause intense, throbbing headaches that last anywhere from a few hours to several days.

A migraine headache usually affects one side of the head, but some people experience pain on both sides.

A migraine episode can occur in four distinct phases, though not everyone experiences every phase.


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