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Migraines, headaches and managing the pain

Last Modified: June 20, 2018

Family Medicine

If an intense headache is distracting and uncomfortable, a migraine can often be entirely debilitating. We invited Kylie Koesters, doctor of pharmacy candidate, to explain the difference between the two and the role of medication in controlling and minimizing the pain.

What is a migraine?

A migraine presents as a throbbing or pulsating pain on normally just one side of the head. They are often associated with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound. The pain may be so severe, it is disabling to the individual. A migraine could cause pain lasting hours to days in duration. A warning symptom such as light flashes, tingling in the arms or legs, weakness, or blind spots may be observed just prior to a migraine attack. This is known as an aura. Following a migraine attack, you may feel tired, delighted, confused, dizzy, weak or sensitive to light and sound.

Are migraines common and what causes them?

Migraines affect approximately 1 in 10 individuals beginning at childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. While the cause isn’t completely understood, environmental factors play a role. The following are examples of migraine triggers: pregnancy, menopause, oral contraceptives, aged cheeses, salty foods, aspartame, alcohol, stress, bright lights, strong smells, missing sleep, physical exertion, weather changes.

What is a headache?

A tension headache presents as a pressing or tightening pain normally on both sides of the head. They are usually not associated with nausea and vomiting. Unlike migraines, headaches are not usually associated with warning symptoms.

How can one treat a headache or migraine?

You can try to prevent headache or migraine occurrences by keeping a consistent daily schedule with regular sleep patterns, regular meal patterns, and regular aerobic exercise such as walking, swimming or cycling. You may try an over-the-counter medication such as Tylenol®, Motrin® or aspirin to treat your headache or migraine. Ask the pharmacist or your physician for any specific dosing recommendations.

Do not use more than the recommended amount to avoid internal bleeding. If you experience headaches or migraines regularly, keep a headache diary to track the time and day of when you experience a headache. You may also want to track what medication you tried and if it worked. This can be used during physician appointments to show your physician the occurrences of your headaches or migraines and allow him or her to assess if a prescription medication would be needed.

When should someone seek help from a healthcare professional?

If you have a new or different headache from what is normal to you, and may be classified as the “worst headache of your life”, see your doctor immediately or go to the emergency room. If you experience a headache with a fever, stiff neck, confusion, seizure, weakness, or have trouble speaking, you should see your doctor immediately. Lastly, seek attention if a headache occurs after a recent head injury or a chronic headache that worsens upon coughing, exertion, or sudden movements.






Lipton RB, Stewart WF, Diamond S, Diamond ML, Reed M. Prevalence and burden of migraine in the United States: data from the American migraine study II. Headache. 2001. 41(7):646-57.

National Headache Foundation

National Headache Foundation Headache in Children

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