Tension Headaches vs. Migraines

We all know the feeling of a headache coming on. Reaching for the bottle of pain relievers as you begin to feel the uncomfortable and painful pressure. Unsurprisingly, headaches are very common. According to the World Health Organization, 50% of adults feel the symptoms of headaches at least once a year. However, you may not realize how many different types of headaches there actually are. 

There are two major categories of headaches; primary and secondary. Primary headaches are ones that are not caused by another condition, meaning that the headache is the main problem itself. Secondary headaches are the result of a separate underlying condition, such as head injuries, high blood pressure, or substance abuse.

In this article, we will focus on the two most common types of primary headaches; tension and migraine.

Tension headaches

There are two main types of tension headaches. 

  • Episodic tension headaches occur infrequently, fewer than 15 days a month.
  • Chronic tension headaches occur more than 15 days a month.

Tension headaches (also known as stress headaches) are the most common type of headaches that we are all familiar with. The pain is usually mild to moderate and described as a pressure or tightness around your head and neck. The areas where pain is felt may vary depending on the person, but it is commonly located along the forehead, temples, and around the back of the head. 

They are generally not considered to be dangerous and normally only last from thirty minutes to several hours, or even days. Most people will be able to continue their day-to-day activities with a tension headache. However, taking over-the-counter medication such as aspirin or ibuprofen is an easy way to relieve your pain.


Migraine headaches are more severe and will cause an intense throbbing pain on one side of your head. They also often come with other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and noise. 

There are many different types of migraines, but the two main types are common migraines, and classic migraines. The difference between the two is the presence of an aura. People who suffer from classic migraines will get an aura up to 30 minutes before they begin to feel the headache pain. Some symptoms of the aura include:

  • Seeing bright flashing dots, sparkles, or lights.
  • Blind spots in your vision.
  • Numb or “pins and needles” tingling in your skin.
  • Speech changes.
  • Temporary vision loss.
  • Seeing wavy or jagged lines.

Unfortunately, genetics play a large role in migraines. They are believed to be a heritable trait, making some people predisposed to suffering with the symptoms of migraines. However, many over-the-counter medications are available to help manage the pain.