Tension Headache or Migraine?

Have a headache again? Do you find they have been coming on more frequently lately? Not sure of the best way to manage the symptoms, or even where they come from? Is it a headache or migraine? If you’re asking yourself these questions then you’re not alone. It’s good to be aware of the difference between headache pain and migraine pain. Being able to differentiate your pain symptoms will help you to manage them better and be aware of possible triggers in the future.

There are usually two main reasons we get headaches. One is a direct symptom from an underlying cause, such as muscle tension, sleep disturbances, or maybe even posture or jaw imbalances. The second is usually a side effect from something more systemic going on, like the flu or a form of injury or trauma. We will be focusing on the primary headache or migraine symptoms and how to be aware of them.
What is the difference between a tension headache and a migraine? It’s the way you experience them and the types of pain or symptoms that you have that will define one or the other.

Tension Headache

Headache pain is usually a dull throb or ache that happens on one or both sides of our temples, the back of our head, or even the bridge of our nose. Tension around our shoulders and neck (or even slight nausea) can also sometimes accompany a headache, but usually most symptoms will either decrease or go away all together in a time span of 30 minutes to 15 days, depending on the severity.[i]These tension headaches can be caused by stress, imbalanced postures or positioning for too long, muscle or joint restriction or even changes in temperatures outside.
The best way to alleviate these symptoms is first to rest as much as possible. Having a hot bath with a cold damp face cloth applied to either the forehead or neck can also help to ease headache symptoms. Adjusting your pillow or sleep patterns, or even taking more short rest breaks at work can help to make headaches less frequent. Having a massage or a chiropractic adjustment and talking with your health care provider about proper stretches and posture to alleviate muscles can also be very beneficial if you have a headache.
tension headache or migraine, difference between headache and migraine


Migraines, in comparison, have very different symptoms and can be more debilitating. It is believed that migraines originate from a mix of vascular and neural tension which can be triggered by diet, stress, hormonal shifts, allergies, hunger and a lot of other causes. Early symptoms may occur that can indicate a migraine is about to start, like water retention, an increase in fatigue, or general malaise. Once a migraine has started symptoms are usually severe and can last between 48 to 72 hours. When a person is suffering from a migraine, some symptoms that may occur are muscle soreness, sensitivity to light and sound, nausea or vomiting, and cold sweats. Some symptoms may affect vision, causing a blurry aura around objects (depending on the severity of the migraine).
The best way to take care of a migraine is to stop it before it even begins.  Be aware of what triggers may cause your migraine symptoms to appear, and if possible eliminate or reduce the stress to your body in those areas. If you start to feel a migraine come on, hot baths and self massage can help to decrease the symptoms. During a migraine, however, it is best to rest as much as possible in a dark room with a cold gel pack applied to the head or the back of the neck. Eating lighter but regular meals and staying hydrated is also an important form of self care. Once the migraine has passed it is always a good idea to get a massage or chiropractic adjustment to alleviate any lingering tension that may have occurred from the migraine.
If you notice that your headaches or migraines are more frequent, last longer, and are becoming more severe and painful, it is always recommended to seek advice from a medical expert or your MD. There may be underlying health conditions that could be causing your headaches.
Headaches or migraines are sometimes unavoidable but how you respond to them is up to you. Don’t let your headaches or migraines interfere any more than you need to. Get back to the things you love and to a healthier you. You’ll be glad you did.


[i] References from Clinical Massage Therapy – Rattray, Ludwid 2000

Leave a Reply