Migraine; 7 ways they differ from a ‘normal’ headache

Wednesday 09th Sep 2020 |

Most of us will experience some kind of headache at some time in our lives, and they can come in many different forms.

The most common are tension-types headaches, thought to affect up to 78% of the general population at some point in their lives.

Migraines are less common but still affect around 15% (1 in 7) of people, and can be incredibly debilitating. It’s important to recognise the differences between the two, so that the most appropriate treatment can be sought. 

Migraine Pain severity

Whilst no headache is pleasant, in general the pain experienced by migraine sufferers is much more severe than your average tension-type headache. Sufferers will often be required to stop activities and lie down to rest in a dark room.

In very severe cases emergency medical attention may even be sought. The type of pain experienced also tends to differ, with migraines described as a throbbing or pulsating pain, whilst tension-headaches tend to be more of a constant, steady, dull ache in the head. 

Migraine Pain location –

A further distinguishing feature is pain location. Typically, migraines present with unilateral pain (on one side of the head), whereas with tension-headaches, pain usually starts in the back of the head or forehead and spreads over the entire head. 

Other symptoms

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between migraine and other headaches is that migraine sufferers will often experience other symptoms in addition to the head pain. For example, many migraine sufferers also experience nausea, vomiting, digestive issues and sensitivity to light, noise, movement and smell with attacks. 


Headache is actually only one stage of migraine. Many sufferers also experience a prodrome up to 24 hours before an attack. This involves symptoms such as sensitivity, irritability, food cravings, or difficulty concentrating which gives a warning sign that a migraine is coming.

Shortly before a migraine headache around 10 – 30% of migraine sufferers will also experience an aura (a range of neurological symptoms that can include visual disturbances, numbness, tingling or weakness, disturbed speech and memory changes). The phenomenon is unique to migraine and will not be experienced by those experiencing other types of headache. After the migraine headache comes the postdrome phase, where sufferers often report feeling wiped out, fatigued or depressed. Those who suffer with tension-type headaches do not typically experience such different phases. 


Tension-type headaches and migraines have a different pathogenesis (manner of development). Migraines involve the activation of the trigeminal nerve (a major pain pathway in the brain). This is thought to lead to the release of vasodilators, which induce pain responses and an inflammatory cascade of events. Tension-headaches on the other hand are usually caused by a tightening in the muscles of the face, neck or scalp, resulting in pinching of the nerve or its blood supply that results in the sensation of pain or pressure.  

Migraine Triggers

Tension-type headaches are often as a result of stress, poor posture, dehydration or drug reactions. Whilst stress and medications can also trigger migraines in some, sufferers tend to have a more broad range of triggers, which will vary from individual to individual. For example, certain smells, changes in temperature, sleep deprivation, skipping meals, certain foods, alcohol or caffeine. Interestingly, it is thought that magnesium deficiency could be a contributing factor to both migraines and headaches, and for women, hormonal fluctuations may also play a role in both types of headache. 

Involvement of the Gut

Recent research into migraine has revealed that the health of the gut may play a key role in migraine development and that live bacteria supplements may be of benefit in the condition. Gut hyper-permeability (“leaky gut”) caused by low levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut is a driver for inflammation throughout the body. It is now thought that inflammatory molecules originating from the gut can sensitise pain receptors on the trigeminal nerve, triggering the inflammatory cascade that results in migraine.


In a recent clinical study, the 14 strains of live bacteria in Bio-Kult Migréa, taken daily, were found to significantly reduce migraine severity and frequency in as little as 8-10 weeks. We  are only just discovering the important role of the gut microbiota for many aspects of health, so there is the possibility that the gut could play a part in other types of headache. However, for now, the best evidence for this is in migraine. 

Bio-Kult Migréa is a multi-action live bacteria supplement, containing 14 different strains, plus magnesium and vitamin B6, both of which contribute to the normal functioning of the nervous system, and the reduction of tiredness and fatigue (£19.94 from www.bio-kult.com),. Vitamin B6 also contributes to the regulation of hormonal activity.

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