Real Simple: Is It a Migraine or Just a Headache?
Real Simple recently spoke with neurologist Vernon Williams, MD, director of the Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Management at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute, about the differences between headaches and migraines, what triggers them and how to treat them.
While headaches can have many causes, including tension, too much screen time, sinus infections or illness, migraines are the result of a neurological disorder, Williams told Real Simple. "Knowing how to differentiate between the two and understanding the causes may make it easier to find relief," he said.
Headaches involve pain in parts of the head or upper neck, while migraines cause throbbing or pounding that engulfs the entire head or shifts from side to side. But migraines are more complex and can also include vision problems, loss of appetite, gastrointestinal distress and sensitivity to odors, sounds or light, Williams said.
Headaches and migraines can often be prevented by avoiding common triggers, such as alcohol and caffeine, certain food ingredients, inadequate sleep, poor posture, allergens, secondhand smoke and strong chemical smells, Williams said.
Migraines, which affect women more often than men, also can be triggered by the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, menopause and birth control pills, all of which cause fluctuations in estrogen levels. "Estrogen, a female hormone, also controls chemicals in the brain that affect sensations of pain," Williams told Real Simple.
As for treatment options, it's best to take a moderate approach to pain relief. The overuse of medications such as Tylenol and Excedrin can actually cause headaches. For frequent, chronic headaches, seek advice from a physician who can decide if prescription medications might help.
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