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Definitions: Holding Us Back

Definitions: Holding Us Back

Why do we have such a hard time getting proper treatment and or medications for migraine? Could it be because the antiquated definitions of headache and migraine are too similar? Perhaps the medical community should take the time to better distinguish between the two afflictions. Perhaps the similarities in the two definitions are why so many doctors do not see or feel the need to look into stronger or better medications and treatment options for migraine patients.

Headache defined

The Mayo Clinic defines a headache as “pain in any region of the head. Headaches may occur on one or both sides of the head, be isolated to a certain location, radiate across the head from one point, or have a viselike quality. A headache may appear as a sharp pain, a throbbing sensation or a dull ache. Headaches can develop gradually or suddenly, and may last from less than an hour to several days.”1

Migraine defined

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defined migraine as “a condition marked by recurring moderate to severe headache with throbbing pain that usually lasts from four hours to three days, typically begins on one side of the head but may spread to both sides, is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light or sound, and is sometimes preceded by an aura and is often followed by fatigue.” 2

Headaches and migraine

Many people are familiar with headaches and probably will experience several throughout their lifetime. Most headaches can be treated with over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, nsaids, such as advil or motrin. Some individuals experience a bad headache as part of a hangover and can mistaking believe that this type of headache is a migraine.

Migraine is a very different thing than a headache. There are some lucky people who will make it through life without ever having experienced a migraine. This is partially where the challenge comes into play because it is hard for somebody to understand something that they never experience. So for those individuals who have never had a migraine, they assume it’s the same as a bad headache.

Personal experience

The neurologist who does my wife’s Botox injections, is one of those doctors who uses the term headache instead of migraine. We both find it extremely aggravating because it feels like the doctor makes light of the severity of my wife’s migraines by calling them headaches.

How does it make you feel when your doctor or other people you know refer to your migraine as a “headache”? Do you think they refer to it as a headache because they lack empathy or because they simply do not know the difference? What do you think could do to try to bridge the gap in information? What kinds of experiences have you had, (positive or negative) in trying to explain the difference to someone? Do you think there will ever be a true understanding of the difference?

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Mayo Clinic. 2018. Symptoms Headache. Retrieved from
  2. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 2018. Migraine. Retrieved from


  • Laur52
    1 year ago

    Headache is a symptom (a sensation or malfunction that impairs your enjoyment of life, or is a change from your normal). Migraine is a diagnosis (a label for a well-characterized condition for which there may or may not be a specific treatment). Diagnoses are based on the pattern of symptoms, physical findings, and test results. If your doctor is calling it a headache, time to get another one because the one you have doesn’t think precisely enough.

    To show how the use of the term “headache” muddies the waters, I have had most of the symptoms listed on this site at one time or another, except a headache. The symptoms that I always get are the visual ones: scintillating zig-zag lines (called “fortifications”), blurring, and black-out of the center of my visual field (“central scotoma”) while retaining my peripheral visual field. Thus I can see everything except what I am looking at, quite freaky, but it still allows me to function.

    The condition usually occurs when I am relaxing after a period of intense focus or stress, more often when I have not had enough sleep, or possibly not enough to drink in both situations. It lasts 1-3 hours then subsides. The most debilitating part has been due to nausea, but that has happened less than 5% of the time. I eat some sugar containing food (long duration candy bar (Oh Henry), fruit or pastry), drink a cup or more of water, then lie down in a quiet dark room. I try to auto-hypnotize myself into a trance level, or to fall asleep. When I wake up in a couple of hours or less, the attack has passed.

  • pwrnapper
    1 year ago

    Seems like we all share the same problem of trying to find a Headache Specialist, a doctor that understands what we are going through and the experience to manage our condition properly. Personally when I started getting Cluster Headaches in 2004 I quickly found that going to my PCP and the neurologist he recommended that most doctors do NOT understand our condition. Yes, they refer to Migraines as Headaches and in my case they assume Cluster Headaches are like most other headaches. First it took 10 years to get properly diagnosed with CH, at least a dozen so called specialist neurologist, more tests and MRIs than I can remember and dozens of different medications and brews. Most of them did not help and actually made me feel worse. Finally after going to Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, they are the best in my opinion and come highly recommended. However for ongoing care locally maybe a Headache Specialist on this site will help those of you that can’t find a proper doctor, good luck and stay healthy.

  • shirleykessel
    1 year ago

    Great article and topic! In 2017 a new coalition – the Coalition for Headache and Migraine Patients, (CHAMP) was founded that includes many members of the migraine community, including This is one of the projects we are working on – languaging. We will announce our results in 2018. We use the word “headache” to refer to all other types of headache diseases, such as cluster. – Shirley Kessel, CHAMP member.

  • mike1875
    1 year ago

    In my 40 years of chasing help for my Migraines the least helpful doctors were the Neurologists. As a group I have rarely met a greater group of navel gazers. My greatest on ongoing satisfaction has come from dealing with Pain Clinics. These are staffed with doctors whose sole desire is to help you control your pain. Some are staffed with Family Doctors who have taken extra training. Others I have gone to had anesthesiologists who had extra training in pain management. None of the Neuro’s i”ve heard of or seen have taken the pain courses that we as Migraine sufferers need to help us with our lives.

  • chica22
    1 year ago

    My doctors constantly refer to my migraine as headache….that when the constellation of physical symptoms and aura are debilitating and the ache in my head and neck are just a part of the entire migraine. My sympathetic nervous system goes haywire during migraines and causes all kinds of havoc including blood pressure spikes that are dangerous. So when they call it headache I feel helpless and frustrated. And when I try to explain they do not listen…..
    Medicine has come a long way during my 50plus years of migraine…..but not far enough,

  • Joleen1966
    1 year ago

    I like what you said… It’s a migraine ATTACK. It definitely is more than just a headache. Terribly annoying when people think it’s “just” a headache. ATTACK is a good term because my whole body is under attack along with the horrific pain on the one side of my head.

    I see a new neurologist this week and my worst fear is what you had happen. Psychosomatic. If only we could take our pain and put it on the them so they’d understand……………..

  • litoria76
    1 year ago

    After all of the failed treatments and failure to find the cause of my migraines, my neurologist told me “it’s all in your head (psychosomatic).” That really hurt, like i wanted to be sick in bed almost everyday.

  • mrst53
    1 year ago

    Get a new neuro Doc immediately. There are good docs out there.

  • Luna
    1 year ago

    I like the Mayo Clinic definition of migraine better then the dictionary.
    A migraine can cause severe throbbing pain or a pulsing sensation, usually on just one side of the head. It’s often accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and extreme sensitivity to light and sound. Migraine attacks can cause significant pain for hours to days and can be so severe that the pain is disabling. Warning symptoms known as aura may occur before or with the headache. These can include flashes of light, blind spots, or tingling on one side of the face or in your arm or leg.

    When anyone calls my migraine attacks “headache” or “how are your allergies?”. I tell them I do not have a headache it is a migraine attack and includes the whole body not just the head. “Allergies” no it is a sensitive brain that starts up migraine symptoms. If I don’t correct them they won’t know.

  • MarciaCooper
    1 year ago

    My neurologist, my physician, every doctor I see has never used the word headache instead of migraine when referring to my migraines.
    Perhaps you need to get new doctors who understand the difference!!

  • Ann
    1 year ago

    Migraines afflict more women than men. More men than women are part of the medical society. It’s just not a priority unless it’s a male affliction such as ED, heart disease, Aids etc. etc. As mentioned on this site, there’s also a stigma connected to migraines. It’s not a headache. It’s a neurological attack. Perhaps if headache was removed from its description, headway will be made. One can only hope.

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