So many people with migraine have heard “Migraine is just a headache.” But they know it’s much more than that.
Migraine is the third most common disease in the world. 25% of people with migraine report an interruption in their daily lives from migraine. This can include missing work or school and being unable to do household chores. Here are 10 ways to answer critics who think migraine is just a headache.
10. Migraine Is More Than Just a Headache
People who have never suffered a migraine attack may not understand the difference. Teaching people about migraine will help them understand the disease.
Migraine is a genetic nervous system disease passed on through families. If one or both parents have migraine, their child has a 50%–75% chance of getting it too. However, you can still have migraine if it doesn’t run in your family.
Headache is only one of many symptoms that can happen during a migraine attack. Migraine has four phases, but not everyone experiences each phase. These phases are prodrome, aura, headache and postdrome.
The prodrome and aura phases of a migraine often happen before any pain. Some symptoms of the prodrome phase can include tiredness, irritability, difficulty concentrating and food cravings. Around 75% of people with migraine have a prodrome phase. Because these symptoms are so common, many people don’t link them with the start of a migraine.
Aura is less common, affecting around 20% of people. Aura includes changes in vision, tingling, numbness and trouble speaking. People with aura may experience blind spots, bright spots or even flashes of light. Medication can sometimes stop migraine from getting worse in these phases.
The headache phase can last from several hours to days. Pain can be on one or both sides of the head. Other symptoms include nausea, vomiting and light or noise sensitivity. These symptoms are bad enough that most people can’t work, exercise or enjoy their hobbies.
Around 80% of people with migraine experience postdrome, the final migraine phase. Symptoms include tiredness, body aches, difficulty concentrating, sensitivity to light and dizziness.
9. A Migraine Attack Can Last for Days
Head pain doesn’t usually go away on its own. Migraine attacks can last for days at a time.
People most often report pulsing and throbbing on one or both sides of the head. Migraine pain is more severe than that of a headache. Vomiting, nausea and sensitivity to light and sound also often happen with migraine.
There are many kinds of migraine, including some with no pain at all. Balance, vision and energy levels can be affected for hours or days before and after an attack.
8. Migraine Can Include Unusual Symptoms
A migraine is different from a headache in intensity and duration. Pain worsens with exercise, and people with migraine are sensitive to lights, sounds and smells. Head pain is only part of the symptoms. Migraine may also include body chills, phantom smells, brain fog, mood changes and dizziness. Insomnia, anxiety and dizziness are other possible symptoms.
Changes in the nervous system happen during a migraine attack, but they don’t show up on scans or blood tests. Healthcare providers diagnose migraine based on many different symptoms. These include nausea, vomiting and neck pain. People with migraine may also experience food cravings, depression, trouble concentrating and irritability.
7. Migraine Can Be Chronic
Migraine is often classified based on how many headache days a person has. The two classifications are episodic or chronic. People who have 14 or fewer headache days per month have episodic migraine. People who experience 15 or more headache days per month for at least three months have chronic migraine.
A study looked at the disability, pain intensity and impairment of migraine. It found patients with 8–14 headache days a month had similar levels of disability as patients with 15–23 headache days. It also found people with 24 headache days (or more) a month had the highest level of disability.
6. Migraine Is a Neurological Disease
Migraine is a nervous system disease that has many symptoms that affect the nervous system. Genetics, gender, stress level and smoking are all factors that contribute to migraine.
There are over 150 different kinds of headache, divided into primary and secondary. Migraine is a common primary headache disorder. This means you don’t have an underlying cause and it doesn’t show up on scans or blood tests. Secondary headaches are symptoms of another disease or injury.
5. Migraine Doesn’t Always Include Head Pain
Migraine doesn’t always present with head pain. Typical aura without headache includes aura symptoms but not headache. Aura happens in around one-third of people with migraine. Aura includes changes in vision, speaking or sensation.
4. Migraine Is the Second Leading Cause of Disability in the World
Migraine is a disabling disease. People with migraine may miss work, be passed over for promotions or be forced to be less productive.
Migraine is hard to treat because the disease is unpredictable. Many migraine symptoms overlap with other conditions. Some people may not recognize symptoms of migraine and may not seek appropriate treatment.
3. Migraine Doesn’t Only Affect Adults – 10% Of Children Experience It Too
Migraine attacks in children can fluctuate from moderately to very painful. Knowing what to expect when your child has a migraine will speed up treatment. Giving medication early will greatly reduce how bad the migraine is. Migraine in children usually doesn’t last as long as in adults.
In children, migraine pain is often located above the eyes. Other symptoms children may have are nausea, vomiting and light and sound sensitivity. Sometimes, children may have abdominal pain or abdominal migraine instead of head pain.
Getting enough sleep, lowering stress levels and eating healthy can help children with migraine experience fewer attacks. Children who have migraine once or more per week may require a preventive treatment to reduce severity and frequency.
2. Migraine Can Be Treated, Not Cured
There are two main types of treatments for migraine: acute and preventive treatment. Acute medications are used during an attack to relieve pain and stop an attack from getting worse. Preventive treatment, on the other hand, is used to reduce the frequency, severity and length of attacks.
Recognizing warning signs of a migraine is crucial to early treatment. In a migraine attack’s early stages, medication may stop or reduce pain. Keep a diary of how often migraine symptoms happen. Note any changes in diet and weather to see a pattern of when a migraine starts.
1. A Doctor Diagnoses Migraine
Still not convinced? Migraine is a real disease that has to be diagnosed by a doctor. Doctors diagnose migraine through symptoms, severity and how often they happen.
A doctor will review your medical history and examine you. The doctor may order tests to rule out other conditions. Your doctor may prescribe medications to reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms.
Education is the key to understanding the difference between migraine and headache. Both are painful, but migraine is a genetic brain disease that needs professional help to manage. Migraine is more than “just a headache.”
The American Migraine Foundation is committed to improving the lives of those living with this debilitating disease. For more of the latest news and information on migraine, visit the AMF Resource Library. For help finding a healthcare provider, check out our Find a Doctor tool. Together, we are as relentless as migraine.
Reviewed for accuracy by the American Migraine Foundation’s subject matter experts, headache specialists and medical advisers with deep knowledge and training in headache medicine. Click here to read about our editorial board members.