(Head)aches and pains

What is the difference between a headache and a migraine?

A migraine is a subtype of headache with several distinct features. Migraines often cause throbbing pain, which can be severe and debilitating. Additionally, migraine pain is frequently on one side of the head, particularly in the forehead/temporal region and behind the eye. Migraines can also have associated features of nausea and/or sensitivity to light and sound. Some migraines can also be preceded by visual distortions such as flashing lights, jagged lines, or a kaleidoscope-type of color display. However, this type of visual aura is rare and does not occur for all migraines.

Headaches, in contrast, are milder, unpleasant pains in the head that typically occur on both sides of the head, including the forehead, temples, and back of the neck.

What causes (biological and environmental) contribute to developing migraines and headaches?

There are potential hereditary causes of migraines. For example, 80-90% of people with migraines report having a family member who also experiences migraine headaches. The genetic links are still far from clear, though a child with one parent who experiences migraines has a 50% chance of developing migraines. This risk increases to 75% if both parents experience migraines.

Most patients can identify triggers for their migraines, though not all migraines are associated with a trigger. Commonly described migraine triggers include stress, sleep deprivation, hunger, bright/flashing lights, strong odors and certain foods, such as cheese, alcohol, and chocolate.

Can frequent headaches be a sign of an underlying issue?

Headaches that are out of character for your typical migraine headache should prompt a medical evaluation to make sure there is no other source. Examples would include headaches of different intensity, frequency, location, or a persistent headache that is not resolving.

Soldiers and military personnel are always on the go. Do you have any tips for people to utilize at the early signs of a headache to prevent them from becoming unbearable?

If you feel a headache coming on, you should hydrate with water and try to sleep, if possible.

At the onset of headache, a nonprescription NSAID such as Naproxen or Ibuprofen can offer significant relief if taken early. Some patients also have a better initial response to Excedrin, which is a mix of caffeine, acetaminophen (Tylenol) and Aspirin. You should discuss any contraindications and dosing limitations with your physician. Your doctor can also prescribe a different class of medication (Triptan) if an NSAID offers insufficient relief. For patients with frequent migraines, your physician may prescribe a daily preventative medication to reduce the frequency and severity of your headaches.

What can individuals do on a daily basis to limit the chances of suffering from migraines?

The best way to avoid migraines is to make sure you have a consistent sleep schedule, eat regularly and maintain a steady diet. Working to reduce stress and anxiety will also help alleviate headache and migraine symptoms. As mentioned, being able to identify any migraine triggers such as lack of sleep, hunger, stress, exposure to bright lights or specific foods will help patients address potential headaches and migraines from the beginning, allowing for proper medication to reduce pain before the pain becomes unbearable.