It was my freshman year of college, and I was in the dorm bathroom.
I remember looking into the mirror and realizing I couldn’t see part of my face. I touched my cheek, but the fingers in my left hand had become numb. Suddenly, a line of jagged, flashing colors and lights appeared that obstructed my vision, and it grew bigger and bigger until I could barely see anything.
I tried to close my eyes to make it go away, but I could still see it, flashing and dancing on my eyelids. As I tried to keep calm, I felt a wave of nausea pass over me, and I realized the numbness in my hand had moved up my arm and was starting to creep into my shoulders and face. I was rushed to the hospital.
These symptoms, I later found out, were part of an “aura” that sometimes accompanies migraines. They passed after an hour—but then an unbelievable pain shot through my head, one that I had never before experienced.
This was the first of my many migraines that I dealt with throughout my college career.
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However, not all migraines occur quite like this. Symptoms and severity often differ with the sufferer. As a result, many claim that they experience migraines when they’re really having a particularly bad headache, while others think they’re having a headache when they’re really experiencing a migraine.
So which is it: headache or migraine? Read more to find out.
Headache or Migraine – What’s the Difference?
1. The dreaded “aura”
An aura describes symptoms you might have before the head pain that can serve as “warning signs” of an impending migraine. Less than 20% of migraines occur with an aura. Unfortunately, I’m one of those unlucky few that gets one almost every time.
Even if you don’t have an aura, you still might be experiencing a migraine, but still keep an eye out for any nausea or vomiting, any visual occurrences like the jagged flashing lights I described, or numbness. If you’re not sure whether you’re having a headache or migraine, and you notice anything weird happening to you before your pain, contact your doctor.
2. Type of pain
The pain you’re experiencing can tell you whether you’re experiencing a headache or migraine. According to Excedrin’s Migraine Center, if your pain is moderate to severe, throbbing, and/or on one side of the head, you’re likely experiencing a migraine. On the other hand, if it’s just a dull, steady pain, you’re likely experiencing a headache. Both headaches and migraines can occur on both sides of the head.
That being said, it’s possible to have a migraine with no pain. This means a migraine with only an aura, which can be just as unpleasant.
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3. Neck pain
If you’re not sure if it’s a headache or migraine, check your neck. Of course, it’s possible to have a sore neck that is unrelated to your headache, but it may be a symptom instead of an unrelated annoyance. Often, migraine pain isn’t only located in the head, but radiates to the neck as well. This is not as typical with headaches.
4. Light or sound sensitivity
When I say light or sound sensitivity, I don’t mean that you want Johnny to stop banging on his drums or Suzy to stop shining her flashlight in your eyes. I mean really intense sensitivity—a desire to shut all the curtains, turn off all the lights, and hide your face into your pillow to get away from every scrap of daylight.
If you find yourself being unnaturally sensitive to light and sound, this is a strong indicator of a migraine, as even the most normal of lights and sounds can intensify migraine pain.
5. Trouble speaking
Recently, when I was experiencing a migraine, my friend told me that we would be leaving for his birthday party in 15 minutes.
What I tried to say: “Sounds good!”
What came out: “Suns-ds gidd.”
Having difficulty speaking is often a sign you’re experiencing a migraine.
Headaches are very annoying, but migraines are crippling. However, it can be difficult to tell whether you’re having a headache or migraine. Keep in mind the type of pain you’re experiencing, and if you have signs of an aura, neck pain, light or sound sensitivity, or trouble speaking, see a doctor. Don’t let migraines take over your life.