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Tension Headaches vs. Migraines: How to Tell the Difference

Headaches are a standard part of everyday life. You may not know that there are many forms, and telling them apart is crucial for you to get the treatment you need. 

It’s hard to tell whether the pain in your head is just a tension headache or something more, like a migraine. While both can disrupt your day, they’re not the same and don’t require the same treatment. 

At SEPA Pain & Spine, with six locations in southeastern Pennsylvania, our team specializes in distinguishing between these types of headaches and providing effective treatments, particularly for migraines. 

In this post, we explore the differences between tension headaches and migraines, helping you understand which one you might be experiencing and how we can help.

What are tension headaches?

Tension headaches are the most common type of headache. They feel like a constant, dull ache on both sides of your head or at the back. They are often described as feeling like a tight band around the head. 

A tension headache can last 30 minutes to several days, but it usually doesn’t stop you from going about your day. Unlike migraines, tension headaches don’t have symptoms other than pain. Nausea and sensitivity to light are more common in migraines. 

Triggers for tension headaches include stress, poor posture, lack of sleep, or not eating when you should. Regular exercise, maintaining good posture, and managing your stress levels can help prevent them.

What are migraines?

Migraines are more than just headaches. They are a neurological condition that can cause significant pain on one side of your head. The pain can last from a few hours to several days and can be so severe that you become debilitated. 

Aside from pain, migraines are often accompanied by sensitivity to light and sound, nausea, and sometimes even blurred vision or dizziness. 

Some people experience a warning sign, known as an aura, before the migraine begins. Triggers for migraines vary and can include certain foods, stress, changes in sleep patterns, and hormonal changes, especially in women.

Diagnosing the difference

Telling the difference between a tension headache and a migraine can be tricky. A key distinction is how the pain feels. 

Tension headaches are more like a constant ache, while migraines are pulsating and often come with additional symptoms like nausea and light sensitivity.

At SEPA Pain & Spine, we can diagnose what type of headache you have by taking your medical history in detail and conducting a physical exam. In some cases, we might also recommend an imaging test like an MRI or CT scan to rule out any other causes.

Treatment for migraines and tension headaches 

The treatment for tension headaches and migraines varies significantly, which is why it’s essential to be able to tell them apart. Treating tension headaches often involves using over-the-counter pain medication and making some lifestyle changes. 

For migraines, the treatment can be more complex and may include specific medications to relieve pain and prevent future migraines, as well as lifestyle adjustments to avoid triggers. 

These adjustments can involve modifying your diet to prevent known migraine triggers, establishing a regular sleep schedule, and practicing stress-relief techniques like yoga or meditation. 

Knowing if you have a tension headache or a migraine is crucial to getting the proper treatment. Schedule a consultation at any of our offices in Horsham, Langhorne, Meadowbrook, Chalfont, East Norriton, or Limerick, Pennsylvania, by calling 855-235-7246. You can also request a consultation online here.

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