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Headaches and Migraines: What is the Difference?

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After five years of working as a Physical Therapist, I have noticed that many people, including healthcare providers, use the terms headache and migraine interchangeably as if they are the same thing. Headaches and migraines are actually two different conditions and it is important to understand the difference so you can get the proper treatment. Headaches are defined as pain arising from the head or neck. Pain originates from structures or tissues surrounding the brain because the brain itself doesn’t have nerves that give rise to the sensation of pain. There are many different types of headaches caused by different factors. Depending on the type, headaches can be severe and debilitating, but most are mild and quickly resolve. Headaches are very common as most people will experience headaches in their lifetime. 

Migraines are more than just a headache. They can be defined as a neurological disease that involves changes in nerve pathways and chemicals in the brain. Changes in brain activity affect blood in the brain and surrounding tissues causing a range of symptoms including nausea, increased sensitivity to light, sound, and smell, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and headaches. Headaches are a symptom of migraines. Migraines are not as common as headaches affecting only about 15% of the American population, but can be much more debilitating. The exact cause of migraines is unknown but there are known triggers that contribute to migraines. These can be hormonal shifts, allergies, genetics, and environmental factors such as foods, smells, and stress. There is not a cure for migraines but treatment typically includes medication and avoiding known triggers. 

Physical Therapy can not directly treat migraines, but physical therapy can absolutely treat tension headaches. There are many types of headaches with the most common being tension headaches. Tension headaches make up 90% of headaches and 78% of Americans will experience a tension headache. Tension headaches are one of the most common symptoms reported from my patients with neck pain. Tension headache symptoms include muscle tightness coming from the back of your head, neck, jaw, and shoulders. You’ll experience more tight pressure than throbbing. Tension headaches can be caused by stress or fatigue, but may also be caused by musculoskeletal dysfunction. Irritation or injuries to joints and structures of the head, neck, shoulders, and upper back can cause muscles to tighten leading to tension headaches. Mild and infrequent tension headaches can be treated with over the counter medications and proper rest, however people with more severe and chronic tension headaches may need the help of a Physical Therapist. We have many treatments that can help reduce the muscle tension around the head such as dry needling, joint manipulations, and soft tissue mobilizations. Also, Physical Therapists are experts at finding and treating musculoskeletal dysfunctions in the body that are the underlying cause of why your muscles are tightening. If you believe you are suffering from tension headaches, I encourage you to see a Physical Therapist, as we can not only get you feeling better, but also treat the underlying cause and hopefully prevent you from having tension headaches altogether. 

Key Points: 

● Migraines and headaches are not the same thing and are treated differently. 

● Tension headaches are very common. 

● Tension headaches are caused by abnormal tightness of muscles surrounding the head. 

● Physical therapy is an effective treatment for tension headaches and underlying causes. 

Mason Porter, PT, DPT

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Paul Jones

Jones Physical Therapy

"We Help People Recover From Injuries Quickly And Completely Without The Use Of Medication, Shots Or Surgery So They Can Live The Active, Pain-Free Lives They Want And Deserve."

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