If you're a regular sufferer of migraines, then you know what separates a migraine from a regular headache. The pain really is on another level. But if you've never had one, how can you tell when you do experience it? I mean, when is a migraine actually a migraine?
Interestingly, it appears that even the experts have a bit of trouble distinguishing between the two. Dr. Anne Calhoun, partner and co-founder of the Carolina Headache Institute in North Carolina, told Health magazine that "in patients who have migraines, we're going to treat all of their headaches as potential migraines."
According to a report by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, 190,000 migraine attacks are experienced every day in England, and there are 6 million migraine sufferers in the UK. The organisation's findings also suggest that women are twice as likely to suffer from migraines as men (just our luck, eh?).
The Migraine Trust asserts that while the main feature of a migraine is indeed a painful headache, unlike regular headaches, migraine sufferers will experience a whole host of other symptoms, including feeling sick and vomiting, disturbed vision, as well as sensitivity to light, sound, and smells. And, while with a headache you can usually take over-the-counter painkillers to soothe your discomfort, a migraine will more often than not wipe you out and leave you needing to lie in a dark room for at least a few hours. For some, migraine attacks can last a full 72 hours, having an enormous impact on your work and social life.
Symptoms of a migraine can of course differ from person to person, and so distinguishing between a migraine and a headache can sometimes be a challenge. In 1988 the International Headache Society — in a bid to create some clarification on the topic — produced a classification system for migraines and headaches, which has been adopted by the World Health Organisation, according to reports by the Migraine Trust. The report found that common migraines can be separated into two categories: migraine with aura, and migraine without aura.
So, what exactly is an aura? While it sounds pretty harmless, a migraine with aura will include disturbing visual experiences, such as flickering lights, spots, or lines, which can last anywhere between five minutes and an hour. "You may see a little jagged line ... that will develop some cross hatches, and it might sort of move in a curved direction," Dr. Calhoun added.
Other perhaps lesser-known symptoms include vertigo and experiencing problems with your balance, muscle weakness on one side of the body — resulting in a limp arm, difficulties with your speech, and needing to pee more frequently. Sufferers can also experience a "sensory aura," meaning you'll feel a temporary pins-and-needles sensation, usually on one side of the body, according to Health.
Also, if you tucked into a family-size bar of Dairy Milk last night, that could be an indication that you're suffering from a migraine as opposed to a bad headache. Dr. Edmund Messina, medical director of the Michigan Headache Clinic in the US told the same publication that a migraine attack can bring on cravings for particular foods: "A common craving is chocolate."
And can you recall being more irritated than normal when your train was delayed yesterday? Another way of determining whether or not it's a migraine attack is looking at your mood; Dr. Calhoun told Health that "some patients will feel very depressed or suddenly down for no reason" before a migraine.
A 2010 study conducted on a genetically isolated community in the Netherlands went one step further, suggesting that there was in fact a genetic link between people who suffer from migraines (particularly migraines with aura) and those who suffer from depression.
If you're suffering and still in doubt, your best bet is to book an appointment with your GP. Sometimes it takes a professional to really put your mind at ease.