What is a Headache; What is a Migraine

Introduction to Headache

According to Wikipedia, Headache is the symptom of pain anywhere in the region of the head or neck 1.

Headaches are extremely common. Nearly everyone has a headache occasionally. When they occur repeatedly, they are a symptom of a headache disorder. The most common headache disorder is tension-type headache.

Features of a common tension-type headache are described as a band-like squeezing or pressing pain. Other headache disorders (depending on the type) can have pain sensations such as sharp, piercing, or stabbing in quality. 

A headache is generally viewed as "not as severe as a migraine" 

but many sufferers can attest to the fact that some types of headaches can be extremely painful and affect your quality of life, and at times they can disrupt family or social gatherings.

A migraine is not just a bad headache. Migraine is an extremely incapacitating collection of neurological symptoms. 3

Migraine is a complex neurological condition and according to the World Health Organization, it is ranked as the 3rd most disabling disease worldwide. 3

Experts suggest 1 billion people suffer from migraine world-wide. Dr. Elizabeth Leroux from Migraine Canada (our national migraine organization) suggests that 12% of Canadians suffer from migraine.4

The pain sensation of a migraine is often described as a pulsating or throbbing pain. Most often experienced in the head, migraine is typically a one-sided headache, however, pain can be experienced by some on both sides of the head.

The Migraine Research Foundation suggests common neurological symptoms of migraine can be one or more of the following disabling symptoms: visual disturbances, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, extreme sensitivity to sound, light, touch and smell, and tingling or numbness in the extremities or face. 5

As you can see by the numerous categories of migraine (see Headache and Migraine Types page), in very rare cases paralysis or even temporary vision loss can occur.

Because 90% of migraine sufferers are female, there is a high correlation between serotonin (the chemical largely responsible for migraine) and other female sex hormones. 6

Studies show that the prevalence of migraine is about equal in boys and girls up until women begin menarche. Once women experience menarche, they are up to 3 times more likely to be impacted by migraine. The association between the female sex hormone estrogen and migraine are well established. 

Please visit our Women and Migraine page to learn about Women's Issues and Migraine including menstrual migraine,  migraine and the contraceptive pill, menopause, and migraine in pregnancy. This section was authored by Dr. Rose Giammarco from Hamilton, Ontario. Both medicinal and non-drug treatments are listed here. (link to Women and Migraine - Page). 

Researchers conclude that genetic and environmental factors are known to play a part in this pain disorder. Stress can also be a common trigger. While many migraine sufferers are able to isolate a certain food or foods that can trigger a migraine - many foods get falsely blamed as a trigger for migraines. It is common for foods to be overstated as a trigger that can set your migraine in motion. See our page on Triggers (link to Triggers - Page) (page coming).

There are a number of medicines and non-drug treatments to explore. Also, keep in mind that lifestyle factors such as skipping a meal, not staying hydrated, subjecting yourself to unrealistic stress demands and over exertion, can also be contributing factors that can trigger a migraine.

Further to treatment, Dr. Lawrence Robbins a neurologist at the Robbins Headache Clinic in Chicago, believes that although medicines can be an effective method of treating migraine, it is not the only answer. “I always want doctors to consider natural alternatives,” says Dr. Robbins. “Whether it’s meditation, physiotherapy, psychotherapy, exercise, yoga, massage or acupuncture, we want to do other modalities,” says Dr. Robbins. 7

In a recent interview, Dr. David Dodick, MD FRCP (C), Professor of Neurology and Director of the Headache Program at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona claimed that Migraine is the third most common disease worldwide and current treatments are often ineffective and poorly tolerated. 

He further adds that in the U.S. and Canada, migraine is the 4th leading cause of visits to the emergency room which equates to 3.1% of all visits to emergency departments.8

Recent treatment breakthroughs include the new CGRP anti migraine treatment medicines. CGRP stands for calcitonin gene- related peptide. These medicines are fully explained in our CGRP Q & A page that we recently added to our website homepage. 

To access the flyer click here (link: anti-CGRP migraine treatments) 

To fully understand the devastation of migraine, see our article Impact of Migraine by clicking here (link to Prevalence and Impact of Migraine Page) put "coming"

The World Health Organization claims that "Headache disorders are painful and disabling. They can cause substantial personal suffering, impaired quality of life and high financial cost. Repeated headache attacks – and often the constant fear of the next one – can affect family life, social life and employment. Despite this, many people – including many health care professionals – tend to perceive headache as a minor or trivial complaint. As a result, the physical, emotional, social and economic burdens of headaches are poorly acknowledged." 9


  1. Wikipedia Definition - What is a Headache?
  2. World Health Organization: online Q & A - How common are headaches?
  3. Migraine Again - Migraine Facts: 8th most disabling condition world-wide
  4. Migraine Canada - 1 billion people suffer from migraine globally
  5. Migraine Research Foundation - Neurological Symptoms of Migraine
  6. Giammarco, R - 2016 - Book: Non Drug Treatments for Headache: Women's Issues 
  7. Robbins, L - American Migraine Foundation - Key Pearls for Treating Headaches - Facebook Live Recap
  8. Dodick, D - 2018 - CGRP website interview
  9. World Health Organization, Fact Sheet: Headache Disorders









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The book Chronic Daily Headache features
an article reviewed by a Headache Neurologist
entitled "Why Some Headache Patients do
not Improve"!