The Difference Between Tension Headaches and Migraines

Updated: Sep 21

We have all experienced headaches, but that doesn’t mean all experiences are the same. Some headaches are more severe than others, and some are located in different areas of the head.


In addition, some can be effectively treated with an over the counter pain reliever while others can’t.


Don’t just take ibuprofen or acetaminophen and hope for the best if you suffer from frequent headaches. Learn the differences between migraines and tension headaches so you know the best course of treatment.



Headaches and Migraines


Symptoms of a Tension Headache

Although all headaches often involve pain in the head, tension headaches still enable you to go about your day, even if you're distracted.


Onset is usually slow. Tension headaches usually cause a steady ache rather than a throbbing pain, and they are rarely accompanied by nausea, vomiting, or sensitivity to light.

They are the most common type of headache.


Tension Headache Treatments

Over the counter pain killers can help stop a tension headache. Resting in a dark, quiet spot with a cool rag over your eyes can help as well.


The best tension headache treatments involve preventing them from occurring in the first place. A few tips include:

  • Making sure you get an adequate amount of sleep every day

  • Eating regular meals and snacks

  • Engaging in stress management techniques, like yoga or massage

It also involves knowing your triggers so you can avoid them. For example, you should make sure you take a break in the afternoon if you know you regularly get headaches at work if you don’t.


Symptoms of a Migraine

Migraines involve a severe, throbbing pain that is often debilitating. It can come on unexpectedly, although it sometimes occurs after a migraine aura. Pain is often localized to one side of the head.


Unlike tension headaches, migraines are often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light.


Migraine Treatments

Treating a migraine with over the counter pain killers is most effective if you take the medication at the first sign of an oncoming migraine. As is the case with tension headaches, resting in a dark, quiet spot with a cool rag over your face can help.


There are additional medications and treatments available to migraine suffers with a prescription from a doctor.


When to See a Doctor

Migraines can negatively impact your daily life, but they can also be a sign of a more serious condition, like meningitis or stroke.


You should see a doctor right away if you experience debilitating headaches with symptoms like:

  • Stiff neck

  • Muscle weakness

  • Fever

  • Confusion

  • Convulsions

  • Shortness of breath

  • Double vision

You should also see a doctor if headaches are keeping you from experiencing everyday life. A qualified physician can help reduce or eliminate your tension headache or migraine symptoms so you can spend less time in bed and more time doing the things you love.

Ready to visit with a doctor, but don’t want to hassle with an in-person appointment? Start a telehealth visit with a medical professional. They can assess your symptoms, provide you with a diagnosis, and send prescriptions to a local pharmacy so you start experiencing more headache-free days.