What is the Difference Between a Migraine and a Tension Headache?

Laura M. Sands
Laura M. Sands
The pain of migraines is more intense than the pain of tension headaches, and starts at the eye area or side of the head.
The pain of migraines is more intense than the pain of tension headaches, and starts at the eye area or side of the head.

A migraine and a tension headache may both cause significant pain. The pain intensity of a migraine headache is far greater than that of a tension headache, however. Also, tension headaches may become a chronic condition in some people, but migraines are almost always a chronic medical condition that may even be hereditary in some cases. A migraine and a tension headache may both cause light and sound sensitivity, but a migraine headache often results in other physical symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting or even temporary paralysis.

Migraine headaches can be hereditary.
Migraine headaches can be hereditary.

Migraine headaches are more likely to begin in the eye area or on one side of the head before spreading to the rest of the head. Tension headaches tend to start at the back of the head before radiating to the front. Migraines are described as a deep, pulsating pain, while tension headaches feel more like a pressurized pain.

Both a migraine and a tension headache may occur repeatedly and may even occur in a pattern, such as at a certain time each day. A migraine, however, is often preceded by what is known as an aura. Auras are visual or neurological symptoms that often precede a migraine such as facial tingling and numbness, tingling in the hands or seeing bright lights flashing several minutes before a migraine begins. In some, auras also present as a peculiar taste or smell preceding a migraine. While not every migraine sufferer experiences auras, their presence is a tell-tale difference between symptoms of a migraine and a tension headache.

Both a migraine and a tension headache may occur repeatedly or in a pattern.
Both a migraine and a tension headache may occur repeatedly or in a pattern.

A migraine and a tension headache further differ in that a migraine is likely to also be accompanied by other unique physical symptoms. A few of these include partial paralysis on one side of the body, paralysis of an eye muscle or a loss of coordination. The presence of these additional symptoms also makes it easy for doctors to differentiate between a migraine and a tension headache.

Migraine symptoms are often more severe than those of a tension headache.
Migraine symptoms are often more severe than those of a tension headache.

Also known as a stress headache, tension-type headaches are more often caused by events such as stress, injury, certain medications or hunger. There is research to support that some tension headaches may be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain similar to migraines, but rarely so. Migraine headaches are more often the result of a distinct reaction to hormonal changes, however. Another commonly noted difference between a migraine and a tension headache is that, while migraines are sometimes caused by stressful conditions, they tend to occur more often after stress has subsided.

A migraine is likely to be caused by other physical symptoms.
A migraine is likely to be caused by other physical symptoms.

The presence of a migraine and a tension headache can both feel as though they are never-ending. A migraine headache, however, can last for several days while issuing constant, debilitating pain. A tension headache may last just as long and, while very distressful, the pain is not usually debilitating.

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    • The pain of migraines is more intense than the pain of tension headaches, and starts at the eye area or side of the head.
      By: adimas
      The pain of migraines is more intense than the pain of tension headaches, and starts at the eye area or side of the head.
    • Migraine headaches can be hereditary.
      By: Subbotina Anna
      Migraine headaches can be hereditary.
    • Both a migraine and a tension headache may occur repeatedly or in a pattern.
      By: Ana Blazic Pavlovic
      Both a migraine and a tension headache may occur repeatedly or in a pattern.
    • Migraine symptoms are often more severe than those of a tension headache.
      By: Stasique
      Migraine symptoms are often more severe than those of a tension headache.
    • A migraine is likely to be caused by other physical symptoms.
      By: lightwavemedia
      A migraine is likely to be caused by other physical symptoms.