Migraine vs Tension Headache: This Is How to Tell the Difference

Figuring out whether you have a migraine vs tension headache isn't always obvious. Get the details on the key differences to look for here.

Sometimes the pain is hard to distinguish. Tension headaches are slightly less painful than migraines, but the episodes are no picnic either.

When visiting the doctor, your symptoms may be different from the last time.

They may be confusing or hard to identify. Not only could this delay your treatment, but it can also be harmful. Doctors help save time and money when diagnosing their patients correctly the first time around.

If your symptoms fall under migraine vs tension headache, it’s important for you to know the difference.

Symptoms of a Migraine 

Migraines are characterized by a pulsing or throbbing headache, which is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and severe light and sound sensitivity. Visual disturbances can occur, such as flashes of light or zig-zag patterns

A migraine may last several hours or even days. They are often accompanied by a strong emotional response, such as anxiety or depression. 

Symptoms of a Tension Headache

Tension headaches are caused by muscle contractions in the face, neck and scalp. Symptoms of tension headaches include dull or throbbing pain in the head or neck area.

It also causes tightness and pressure in the forehead or temples, which causes difficulty concentrating. Headaches can last anywhere from 30 minutes to several days. 

Possible Triggers of Migraines

Possible migraine causes can vary. But, common ones include stress, hormones, certain medications, certain smells, and even bright lights.


To avoid migraines from stress, practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness meditation, exercise, get enough sleep, and take regular breaks. If the migraines are frequent or severe, a more comprehensive treatment plan may be necessary.


Migraines can also be triggered by certain foods or dietary changes, stress, or hormonal fluctuations. Hormone fluctuations can trigger migraines such as during pregnancy when hormone levels are changing or during the menstrual cycle when hormone levels are high.

Bright Lights

If you find yourself regularly getting headaches from bright lights, it could be a sign that you are suffering from migraines. If this is the case, it is advisable to seek medical advice.

Possible Triggers of Tension Headaches

Possible triggers for tension headaches include poor posture, stress, inadequate sleep, neck and shoulder muscular tension, and dehydration. Learn more info at nationalheadacheinstitute.com.

Poor Posture

A tension headache is generally caused by muscle tightness in the back of the head and tension in the shoulders. It usually causes a pounding or dull ache around the forehead or back of the head. Poor posture can increase the chances of having both types of headaches.

Inadequate Sleep 

Inadequate sleep can be a key trigger for tension headaches. Concerning sleep, tension headaches tend to occur more when a person is overtired and haven’t had enough time to rest.

Determining Migraine vs Tension Headache

Migraine and tension headaches differ in terms of their causes, symptoms, and treatments. It is important to understand the distinction of migraine vs tension headache, so that they can be properly diagnosed and managed.

If you think you are suffering from a migraine or tension headache, it is important to speak with a doctor in order to receive an accurate diagnosis and find the most appropriate treatment. 

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