Migraine and headache: the most important differences


Migraine is a disease characterized by causing intense pain or throbbing sensation, usually on one side of the head.

Although it is a very common condition, it is estimated that 1 in 10 people worldwide have suffered from a migraine in the last year, there are still many erroneous beliefs around it. Here we review the truth behind the most common myths.

Myth 1: Migraine is a headache

TRUE: Migraine is often used to describe any headache, however, experts point out that this is not correct, since, in principle, not all migraines necessarily involve a headache.

Depending on the stage of the migraine that you are going through, the symptoms can vary. There are four stages, although not all people with migraines go through all of them:

  • Prodrome: occurs one or two days before the migraine attack. You may notice subtle changes that signal a migraine is coming, such as constipation, mood swings, a stiff neck, fluid retention, or frequent yawning.
  • Aura: can occur before or during migraines. They are usually visual (such as seeing various shapes, bright spots or flashes of light, or loss of vision), but can also include other disturbances, such as tingling sensations in an arm or leg, slurred speech, or numbness or weakness in the face or on one side of the body. Generally, each symptom starts progressively, increases over a few minutes, and can last up to 60 minutes.
  • Stroke: is what is popularly known as migraine. It usually lasts 4 to 72 hours if left untreated, and is characterized by pain on one side of the head (although it can also occur on both sides), nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, or touch.
  • postdrome: After a migraine attack, it is possible to feel exhausted, confused and without strength for up to a day. Sudden movement of the head can briefly cause pain again.
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Myth 2: It’s only a migraine when you experience an aura

TRUE: This is not true. As the researchers explain, most migraines do not have an aura, only between 10 and 30% of people with migraine experience that stage.

Myth 3: Migraines are always serious

TRUE: Not necessarily. On the contrary, most types of migraine are not serious, however, there are cases that can be chronic, and often debilitating and disabling if not treated properly.

  • How to tell if it’s a headache or migraine

There are even studies that have found that people with migraines that are not treated properly can experience reduced productivity at work and disruption of family, social, and leisure activities.

Myth 4: Migraines only affect older adults

TRUE: The vast majority of conditions are usually linked to aging or older adults. This would not be the case with migraines, since, as the statistics show, although they can occur at any age, they tend to occur between the ages of 10 and 45.

In addition, women are up to three times more likely than men to suffer from them, and they are more common among people with depression, anxiety, sleep problems or epilepsy.

Myth 5: Alcohol or fatty foods cause migraines

TRUE: Some people have discovered that migraine episodes can be triggered by certain foods or ingredients, including alcoholic beverages, processed, fatty or very salty foods, yeasts, mature cheeses, and chocolates, among others.

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However, this does not mean that eating these foods causes migraines. Currently, its origin is not known with certainty, although experts assume that genetics and environmental factors play an important role.

Changes in the brainstem and its interactions with the trigeminal nerve, an important pain pathway, could be involved.

Myth 6: Drinking coffee can make migraines worse

TRUE: The evidence on caffeine intake and migraines is contradictory, since, according to different studies, excessive use of caffeine can lead to migraine chronification, while sudden withdrawal can trigger migraine attacks. Therefore, experts say that it is best to consume it in moderation, unless your doctor recommends avoiding it completely.

Myth 7: Only diet influences migraines

TRUE: In addition to the foods and drinks mentioned above, there are other factors that can trigger a migraine, such as hormonal changes, stress, sleep disturbances, sensory stimuli (bright or flashing lights, strong sounds or smells), intense physical exertion, or changes climatic.

Myth 8: There are products to cure migraines

TRUE: In recent years there has been a boom in the dissemination of home remedies or natural supplements that claim to be effective in curing migraines. The researchers claim that all this is simply a fraud, since, to date, there is no cure for this condition.

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Myth 9: No medicine or treatment works to relieve migraines

TRUE: Treating is something very different from curing. Practitioners point out that many medications, such as over-the-counter pain relievers, triptans, calcitonin gene receptor peptide (CGRP) antagonists, antidepressants, anticonvulsants, and beta-blockers, are now available to relieve migraine symptoms.

To calm the discomfort, it is also recommended to develop routines to sleep at the same time, maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly and hydrate yourself properly.

Myth 10: Alternative medicine is not useful against migraines

TRUE: As its name suggests, complementary medicine should always be seen as a complement to professional treatment, never a substitute.

With regard to migraines, there is evidence that certain non-traditional therapies, such as acupuncture, biofeedback, meditation, yoga, or the use of relaxing herbs, such as infusions of valerian, passionflower or linden, help relieve the pain and discomfort that it causes this condition.

Sources consulted: US National Library of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Mayo Clinic, World Health Organization (WHO).

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