How to spot the difference between tension headaches and migraines

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The causes and symptoms of the two main types of headaches, explained.

Most people will be familiar with the throbbing discomfort of a headache. From a bout of the flu to a sore head after a night on the town, it’s perfectly normal to experience pain in your head every once in a while.

There are many different types of headache, which can impact one or more areas of the head and range from mild to severe pain. Different types of headache have their own set of symptoms and happen for unique reasons. Identifying your headache type could help you select the appropriate treatment and ease the discomfort faster.

Headaches can be painful and annoying, but experiencing one is not typically a sign of anything more serious and (unless you suffer from persistent pain) can usually be relieved by over-the-counter medicine or simple lifestyle changes.

Headaches have no singular cause, but they generally fall into two general categories: tension headaches and migraines.

Tension headaches

Tension headaches are the most common type of head pain. They can occur in people of either sex and at any age, but are most common in adults and adolescents. Also known as primary headaches, this type of headache typically occurs in isolated incidents and is not caused by an underlying health condition, but can become chronic.

Pain is often felt in the generalised area of the head and neck and is sometimes accompanied by muscle tightness in the back of neck. Possible causes of muscle contraction associated with tension type headaches include stressfatigue, poor posture, eye strain, sensory overstimulation including loud noises and bright sunshine, tobacco, excessive alcohol consumption and hormonal changes.

What treatments are available for tension headaches?

If you suffer from isolated tension headaches, you should be able to manage symptoms with over-the-counter pain relief and anti-inflammatories (such as paracetamol or ibuprofen). Relaxation techniques and ensuring you get enough sleep can also help.

If you experience chronic headaches, nausea and vomiting, convulsions, loss of feeling in your arms and legs, or any severe and unusual symptoms, you should contact your GP immediately.

Migraines

The underlying problem that leads to migraines is still not clear, but experts believe migraines are the result of a series of complex changes in the nerves, blood vessels and chemical signalling within the brain.

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