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4 Signs Your Tension Headache Is Actually a Migraine

Feb 04, 2022

Migraine headaches affect about 36 million Americans. Only tension headaches outpace them as the most common type of headache in the United States. Although the underlying cause, typical symptoms, and treatments are radically different, many people mistake one for the other.    

Our specialty team at Florida Pain Management Institute in Delray Beach, Florida, led by double board-certified physicians Adam Shestack, MD, and Cy Blanco, MD, offers state-of-the art services for a variety of chronic and acute pain disorders.

They share four signs of a migraine and how they differ from tension headaches.

Migraine pain throbs rather than squeezes

Tension headaches cause a constant pressure or squeezing discomfort that may feel like a band is wrapped tightly around your head at about the level of your forehead. You may also notice stiffness and aching discomfort in your neck, shoulders, and upper back muscles.

A tension-type headache can last for hours but usually responds quickly to over-the-counter pain medication, a soothing massage, or a relaxing yoga session.

Migraine pain tends to throb or pound in time with your heartbeat. It feels like it’s coming from inside your skull and may worsen with physical activity. Usually intense and disabling, migraine pain lasts for about four hours but can continue for days and may occur several times a week.

Frequent or persistent migraines require a comprehensive and individualized pain management strategy. Yours may include advanced pain management therapy to stop pain, prescription medication to prevent migraine episodes, and avoidance of your migraine triggers.  

Migraines usually take a side

Pain from a tension headache wraps equally around your head. Migraine pain tends to occur on one side or at least seems much worse on one side than the other. But as the episode advances, you may find it difficult to tell where the pain starts, since it feels as if your whole head is involved.

Migraines often let you know they’re on the way

With a tension headache, you may feel some stiffness and discomfort starting at the base of your skull that eventually travels up and around the sides of your head.

Migraines often offer specific warning signs days to hours before they begin, including:

  • Unexplained and sometimes severe fatigue
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Seemingly irresistible cravings for salty, sweet, or carb-laden foods
  • Depression
  • Irritability

Many individuals report they just have a sense of feeling off for several days before migraine pain starts. 

Migraines can also include an aura, which may happen just before or during an episode. These symptoms include:

  • Bright, throbbing, or zigzagging lines in your visual field that may resemble lightning
  • Blind spots or stars in your vision
  • Tingling or crawling sensation on your skin, usually on one side of your face
  • Numbness and tingling in one hand
  • Slurred speech or loss of balance and coordination

If these symptoms are new for you, please seek medical attention since a few can also signal a life-threatening condition such as stroke. Note also that not everyone with a migraine experiences these symptoms.

Migraines cause more than head pain

You may find yourself irritable, grumpy, or even slightly sick to your stomach due to the discomfort associated with a tension headache.

But migraines are often accompanied by:

  • Moderate to severe sensitivity to light, sound, or smells
  • Loss of appetite
  • Worsening pain with physical activity
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea, abdominal pain, and vomiting

And after the pain has receded, migraines can leave you feeling tired, depressed, and less alert than usual for days afterward. This is often referred to as a “migraine hangover.”

Whether you’re experiencing migraines, frequent tension headaches, or another pain issue that’s not responding to home care or is interfering with your quality of life, we can help.

For state-of-the-art care that’s delivered in a welcoming, compassionate, patient-first environment, schedule a visit to Florida Pain Management Institute today. Call our Delray Beach, Florida, office or request an appointment online.