• Bryan Yu: Love Oak Pharmacist Intern

Migraines vs. Bad Headache: Understanding the Difference

What are migraines?

A migraine is a headache disorder that affects many adults and children. This severe disorder is commonly seen with nausea, light or sound sensitivity, and sometimes a light disturbance.

Types of headache disorders

There are many types of headache disorders (see below).[1]

  • Sinus headaches often occur with infection like symptoms (fever, stuffy nose, congestion)

  • Tension headaches present with pressure around the head and sometimes neck. These are the most common and can be episodic or chronic

  • Migraines are intense and severe, usually presenting behind the ear or eye of one side of the head and often with accompanying symptoms

  • Cluster headaches are extremely painful cycles of headache attacks and headache free periods that usually occur on one side of the face

How common are they?

Migraines affect over 39 million patients in the US and over 1 billion patients worldwide. It is considered the 3rd most prevalent illness in the world and is considered the 6th most common cause of disability according to the Global burden of disease study.

Patients 25-55 years old have the highest reported incidence of headaches and 85% of chronic migraine sufferers are women. 28 million women suffer from migraine in the US alone.

An under-diagnosed population of migraine sufferers is children. About 10% of school age children suffer from migraines but is often not diagnosed or reported.

What causes them?

Researches used to think migraines were due to blood vessel changes in the head, but now migraines are thought to be a neurological disorder affecting nerve pathways. It is thought that inflammation in the head leads to a release of pain producing inflammatory substances around the nerves and blood vessel causing a migraine. There hasn’t been any established genetic links but family history has shown to be a risk factor.

How painful are they?

Migraines can range from moderate to severe pain that often presents with a throbbing quality. They can often present with other symptoms including: nausea, vomiting, dizziness, extreme sensitivity to sound or light and numbness of the face or extremities. Below are the results of 518 migraine sufferers ranking their pain on a 1-10 scale.[2]

Not just a headache

It is an easy mistake to call a migraine a bad headache, but migraines are often debilitating and can lead to other disorders. About 1 in 4 migraine sufferers have a visual disturbance called an aura, which presents as flashing lights or stars in their vision. Over 20% of chronic migraine sufferers develop other disorders such as depression, anxiety and issues sleeping.

Social stigma

Many migraine sufferers tend to stay quiet about their disorder due to stigma. More than half of migraine suffers will not seek medical care for their pain and remain undiagnosed. A large portion of the stigma comes from social interactions calling their migraine a “bad headache” and dismissing their pain and suffering. There remains a large disconnect between those who have experienced this type of pain and those who have not.

Upcoming Event

Anna Cowley Ford’s pop-up art exhibit, Dilemma: A Decade of Chronic Pain, provides a rarely seen visual representation of the invisible pain that chronic migraines inflict upon the human body. An Opening Reception will be held on July 6th from 4:00 to 7:00pm at Love Oak Pharmacy. The pop-up art exhibit will be on display through July 20th during normal business hours in the back left corner of the gift section.

About the Artist

Anna Cowley Ford uses her experience with chronic migraines and pain to create work that speaks to larger issues of disability, mental health, and chronic invisible illness. Using materials such as clay, video, medical objects and documents, Ford illuminates the social and domestic impacts of chronic conditions and expounds upon the sensory experience that occurs with migraines and pain.







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