Headache or migraine?

Do you often have headaches? Could they be migraines? Learn about the differences between migraine attacks, tension headaches and cluster headaches so that you can treat them more effectively.

Ouch, my head is pounding! Headaches are a widespread health problem. Along with back pain, they are one of the most common ailments in Switzerland, where around a third of all women and a fourth of all men suffer from throbbing-pulsating or dull-pressing headaches at least one day per month. There are around 200 different types of headache, of differing degrees of severity, often occurring with other symptoms. The most frequent types are:

  • Tension headache
  • Migraine with aura (= preliminary phase, with visual disturbances, for example)
  • Migraine without aura
  • Cluster headache
Difference between migraines and headaches: typical symptoms

Do your headaches tend to be throbbing-pulsating, dull-pressing or stabbing? Depending on what type of headache they have, sufferers may benefit from different treatment methods. Our checklist shows whether your headache is one of the typical primary forms. Take our test:

Tension headache Migraine Cluster headache
Where in the head does the pain occur? On both sides of the head or in the whole head Only on one side of the head On one side, in the eye and temple area
What does the pain feel like?

Pressing, squeezing, dull

Throbbing, pulsating headache Piercing, stabbing
How strong is the pain? Slight to medium Very strong Extremely severe pain attacks
How long does the pain last without treatment? 30 minutes to 7 days Between 4 and 72 hours Between 15 and 180 minutes
How frequent are the attacks? Sporadic or chronic headaches One to three migraine attacks per month Sudden headache attacks; in intervals, up to eight times a day
Do you experience accompanying symptoms? no Yes; for example, nausea and vomiting, sensitivity to light and noise; migraine attacks are often preceded by an “aura” phase featuring vision or speech disturbances or signs of paralysis Watering eyes, runny nose, sweating forehead or face
Does physical activity exacerbate the pain? No; it may even be soothing Yes; sufferers prefer quiet and darkness Increased urge to move during the attack

Tension headaches, migraines and cluster headaches account for around 90% of all headaches. They are among the types known as “primary” headaches, which means they have their own separate pathology. Experts refer to “secondary” headaches when speaking of those that occur as a symptom accompanying some other pre-existing condition. Secondary headaches may be caused, for example, by high blood pressure, flu, medications or consumables such as alcohol, nicotine and caffeine.

Various types: migraine with aura

Migraine, a neurological illness, is among the most frequent disorders of the nervous system. Around 10% of the Swiss population suffers from recurrent migraine attacks. Three times as many women are afflicted as men. Medical experts theorise that female hormones affect pain generation. For some migraine patients, attacks are preceded by an “aura”. A migraine aura manifests with visual or auditory disturbances. The following are typical symptoms that precede strong pain in migraines with an aura: visual disturbances (flashes, flickering, restricted field of vision, double images), speech disturbances, balance disturbances and signs of paralysis.

How do chronic migraines differ?

People who experience a headache more days than not perhaps suffer from chronic migraines. This is the case for 3% to 5% of the global population. This form typically occurs as a dull, continuous pain that is occasionally interrupted by throbbing-pulsating headaches. A chronic migraine usually develops from an isolated (episodic) migraine without an aura. The International Headache Society defines chronic headaches as those that occur at least 15 days per month, for at least four hours, on a long-term basis.

Causes of migraine headaches

The causes of migraine headaches have not yet been fully established. Based on the fact that they are often experienced by multiple members of the same family, experts theorise that genetic factors, among others, may be involved. If you suffer from frequent headaches, try to identify your triggers. A headache diary may help you. Migraine attacks may often be alleviated through behavioural changes. You can learn how to do this on our blog: see “Tips for combating migraines”. Triggers may include, for example, stress, lack of sleep, a change in your sleep/wake rhythm or strong blood sugar fluctuations. Tension headaches may be triggered by poor posture or tense jaw musculature.


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