The Real Difference Between Migraines And Sinus Headaches

From the outside, migraines may seem like any other headache. Or, at worst, they may seem like a really bad headache. But those who live with migraines know better. As the Mayo Clinic explains, migraine symptoms come on in phases. A few days before the migraine, a person might experience symptoms like fluid retention or excess urination, a stiff neck, unusual food cravings, and mood swings. At the onset of a migraine, the person might experience something known as an aura. These usually take the form of a prickling sensation in their extremities, vision changes, or weakness on one side of their body. After that, the migraine itself brings on symptoms like nausea and vomiting, throbbing pain that increases over time, or sensitivity to light, sound, or scent.

With all these symptoms, it should be hard to misdiagnose migraines, but a surprising number of people misidentify their migraines as sinus headaches. The American Migraine Foundation suggests this is because migraines and sinus headaches both cause runny noses and watery eyes.

It turns out that telling the difference between a migraine and a sinus headache runs much deeper than comparing symptoms. The two are actually distinguished by their causes and their impact on a person's body.

It's all about the cause

The American Migraine Foundation states that "true" sinus headaches are very uncommon. They do not occur unless an infection develops in a person's sinuses. Such infections can be viral or bacterial, but in both cases, they lead to sinus headaches as well as other symptoms that are not present with migraines like thick, discolored mucus. When the virus or bacterial infection has been fought off, the headaches stop and will not resume unless the person develops another infection.

Migraines, on the other hand, are not caused by an infection. There is no virus or bacteria at the root of a person's chronic migraines. They are, as the Foundation puts it, a neurological disease. In severe enough cases, people with migraines can and do qualify for disability help (via the AMF).

This stark difference between sinus headaches and migraines goes a little deeper. While the cause of sinus headaches is well established, the actual root cause of migraines is unknown. It is a neurological disease but nobody is quite sure why the disease develops (via the NHS). People can identify triggers that set off individual migraines, but overall its root cause is still a mystery that researchers continue to work on.