Tension Headaches vs. Migraines: 5 Potential Differences

Most people get a headache now and then, and the causes vary greatly. Sometimes it’s just a sign of being overworked and stressed, other times it may be an indicator of a serious medical condition. It may surprise you to know that there are more than 150 different headache types.

If you suffer from frequent headaches, you should learn what kind they are so you can address them with the right treatment. That’s where we at reNu Medical & Injury Center come in.

Our board-certified chiropractic physician, Matthew DeFroda, DC, helps our patients identify their headaches, get immediate relief, and learn how to prevent them.

Here we explain two types of headaches that are often mistaken for one another: tension-type and migraines.

How tension and migraine headaches are similar

Many headaches share symptoms and are difficult to tell apart without the help of an experienced professional like Dr. DeFroda. People tend to confuse tension headaches and migraines because they have a few characteristics in common.

Both tension and migraine headaches are considered primary headaches. That simply means that the headache alone constitutes a medical condition. Secondary headaches, by contrast, are symptoms of a different medical condition.

Both migraines and tension headaches can be distracting and keep you from enjoying your favorite activities. Both types can make you sensitive to loud noises and bright lights.

How tension and migraine headaches differ

Despite their similarities, tension headaches and migraines part ways when it comes to some distinct attributes. Here are five of the main differences.


Migraine headaches typically affect only one side of your head, while you tend to feel tension headaches on both sides.


When you have a headache, you probably don’t feel much like exerting yourself, but it may be the best thing you can do if you have a tension headache, because it often relieves the pain. A migraine, on the other hand, gets worse the more you move around.


Migraines are notorious for causing an upset stomach and even vomiting. Tension headaches rarely result in pain intense enough to cause nausea, although they may affect your mood and ability to concentrate.


About a third of those who suffer from migraine headaches experience an aura just before the onset, which includes muscle weakness, visual disturbances, numbness, and/or difficulty speaking. Tension headaches are not preceded by auras.

Type of pain

Tension headaches feel like a vice is gripping your head, and you have an intense feeling of pressure. Migraines present a throbbing sensation.

Treating migraine and tension headaches

Once Dr. DeFroda diagnoses the type of headache you have, he develops a treatment plan to help you reduce the frequency and severity.

Keep in mind that most headaches are primary headaches, not a symptom of an underlying condition, such as illness, infection, injury, or a brain tumor. Of all the headaches that could possibly plague you, about 90% of the time it’s a tension-type headache.

This is good news, because tension headaches are fairly easy to treat. The first step is to find out what’s making you tense and either avoiding it or learning to manage it.

If your job is highly stressful, try some relaxation exercises and yoga. Getting plenty of exercise helps, too, as it releases endorphins, a natural pain reliever, into your system. Rest and over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen often work wonders as well.

Migraines are trickier to treat. We often don’t know the cause of migraines, but if you have the condition, you can learn what tends to trigger your attacks and avoid them.

Certain foods and smells may set yours off, or maybe it’s lack of sleep or a change in blood pressure or hormones. Keep a headache diary to narrow down the triggers. Dr. DeFroda can also help you learn what to look for.

He has had great success with chiropractic care for migraine and tension headaches. Often, relieving stress from the spine and neck alleviates much of the problem.

If you’ve been suffering from any kind of headache, Dr. DeFroda can help you get to the bottom of it. Call our Newark, Delaware, office or request an appointment online today.

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