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Headache, Migraine or Concussion?

About The Author

Dr. Beth Coopman, PharmD

Clinical Pharmacist

Network Health

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When you’re experiencing head pain of any kind, you may be inclined to reach for the painkillers right away. But this could be a mistake. Though headaches, migraines and concussions can feel similar at times, each has a unique set of causes, symptoms, and may have different treatments. Knowing how to recognize these differences can be integral to getting proper treatment, and to avoiding options that may worsen your condition.


Causes – Headaches are an inflammatory condition, and most aren’t an indicator of a more serious condition. Often, headaches are the result of mental or physical strain. Overactivity, stress and sinus pressure are some of the primary causes. Being exposed to loud areas or straining your eyes for extended periods of time can also result in the kind of tension that may lead to a headache. Certain lifestyle factors, like lack of sleep, poor posture, dehydration or inconsistent diet are commonly the root cause. 

Symptoms – The pain experienced during a headache is often described as “pressure,” which is commonly felt on the sides of the temples or behind the eyes. The head and surrounding areas like the neck may feel tight or tender and whole-body fatigue may be present.

Treatment – Generally, headaches can be alleviated with fluids and rest. Making sure to hydrate, taking a break from strenuous activities, and getting a good night’s rest can be the best remedies for headaches. Additionally, over-the-counter pain relievers can help to ease the pain in your head and neck. Options such as acetaminophen or anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen are often utilized.

Whenever considering starting a new medication, including over-the counter products, it is always best to consult with a personal doctor, pharmacist or the surgeon especially when a person has an upcoming procedure. For example, anti-inflammatory medications may have a negative reaction with those currently taking blood thinners, prone to stomach, esophagus or intestinal ulcers, have upcoming procedures, like colonoscopies or right before or after certain types of surgery. 


Causes – Migraines have a wide range of contributing factors, spanning from genetic links to lifestyle and environmental components. As with headaches, factors like stress, lack of sleep and inconsistent diet can all be part of the problem, but migraines are a chronic condition, with pain being caused by inflammation and dilation of blood vessels in the brain. Migraines have their own set of diagnostic criteria. Rather than tension, migraine pain is more commonly described as a pulsing or “throbbing” sensation, and is typically more intense on one side of the head than the other. The onset of migraine pain tends to be more gradual than that of a normal headache and can last longer. At their worst, migraines can persist for several days.

Symptoms – Migraine symptoms, like pain, are typically more severe or intense than ordinary headaches. Sensitivities to light and sound, bouts of nausea and dizziness, stuffy or runny nose and either worsening from routine physical activity or avoiding activity can be typical migraine symptoms. Some notice a flash of light or blind spot in their vision or numbness, tingling or weakness in the hands during a migraine. This is known as an aura and typically occurs 60 minutes before a migraine.

Treatment – Fluids, rest and ice to relieve pain are a safe start, but your personal doctor or neurologist should be consulted to determine the best treatment options for you, and to monitor your condition to rule out anything more serious. Treatment plans for active migraines vary from patient to patient and are developed based on an individual’s unique symptoms. Anti-inflammatories reduce pain and swelling. Another class of medications called “triptans” shrink dilatated blood vessels in the brain, alleviating migraine symptoms. Preventative daily medications may be used depending on migraine frequency.


Causes – Unlike headaches and migraines, concussions are the result of a direct injury, or sudden impact to the head. The injury results in swelling, and an increase of pressure beneath the skull. Falls, collisions from high-impact sports or activities and accidental bumps to the head are the most common causes. 

Symptoms – While concussion pain can be difficult to distinguish from headache or migraine pain, there are some warning signs that will indicate if a concussion is likely. Those who suffer a head trauma that results in a concussion will feel nauseous and dizzy and may vomit shortly after the injury takes place. Confusion, trouble speaking and memory loss after the injury itself are all red flags. Should the victim lose consciousness at any point, it is advised that you contact an emergency care center as quickly as possible.

Treatment – Concussions are the result of a serious head injury, and should be treated with caution and urgency. In the event of a concussion, contact your personal doctor or urgent care provider as soon as possible so that they can conduct a thorough concussion assessment and help you navigate your treatment options.

It is very important for anyone who may have a concussion to avoid using anti-inflammatory medicines, like ibuprofen or naproxen, because of their blood thinning properties can increase the risk of bleeding in the brain.

When to Call for Help

When rest, hydration and at-home pain relief isn’t enough, or when your symptoms last longer than they should, contact your personal doctor. If certain signs of serious head injuries occur, treatment should be approached with more caution and urgency.

Emergency or urgent care intervention should be considered if you experience any of the following.

  • Head injury results in loss of consciousness, nausea, confusion, memory loss or trouble speaking
  • A head injury leaves a person feeling weak, or numb in parts of the body
  • A severe headache occurs immediately after strenuous activity or exercise
  • A headache or migraine lasts longer than 72 hours

For any questions or concerns regarding head trauma and safe treatment options, it is always best to contact your personal doctor. Visit for information on local treatment centers or to find a physician near you.

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