Photo: Getty / PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou
If you have frequent, pounding headaches, you're definitely not alone. "According to a population-based U.S. government survey published in the journal Headache, one out of six Americans and one out of five women suffer from severe headaches and migraines. About half of the adult population will report suffering from run of the mill headaches at least once a year," Adam Splaver, M.D., a cardiologist at Memorial Hospitals in Miami, Florida.
Migraines, conversely, impact about one in seven people worldwide, notes Carl Cincinnato, producer and cohost of the Migraine World Summit. (Note: While he's not a doctor, he does interact with and interview leading experts yearly at the Migraine World Summit.) That 14 percent rate means that more humans experience migraines than have asthma, diabetes, and epilepsy combined, according to a report in the headache journal Cephalalgia.
"That's over one billion people worldwide, but almost 50 percent have not been diagnosed," Cincinnato adds.
So what's the difference between the two levels of brain pain?
"A headache is any type of pain that can occur in the head area," explains Cynthia E. Armand, M.D., neurologist and fellowship director, Montefiore Headache Center; and assistant professor, Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine. "A migraine is a particular type of recurrent headache condition that can last from four to 72 hours and typically involves moderate to severe pulsating pain on one side of the head."
Related: Recipes to Prevent Headaches
Most people can typically power through a headache, but migraines can majorly throw off your normal routine, Armand confirms, and can impact your overall quality of life in countless ways. The difference stems from something called vascular instability.
"Patients with migraines report having an aura before suffering this malady, which means they may see flashing light, experience nausea or have an adverse reaction to bright light," Splaver says.
Frighteningly, some people may also experience stroke-like symptoms with their migraine attacks, such as motor weakness or difficulty talking, Cincinnato says.
"Other common symptoms of migraine may involve brain fog, fatigue, mood changes, difficulty concentrating, finding words and more," he says.
The best way to help find a cure for either headaches or migraines is to pinpoint the factors that may make the pain happen—or get worse.
"Take note that triggers are not the cause of headache conditions," Armand says. "Triggers can contribute to a headache attack in individuals who are already prone to experiencing an attack because they may have a headache-related condition. Therefore, trigger identification and avoidance can help greatly in reduction of headache and migraine frequency."
Here are some of the most common triggers to keep in mind so you can try to prevent the pain in the future.
"As you're trying to determine your personal headache triggers, hydrating well throughout the day will help prevent migraine attacks since dehydration is a potent migraine trigger," Armand says.
While we're talking drinks, taking it easy on the alcohol can help with headache prevention and overall hydration all at once. Wine—in particular red wine—has been linked to more 'aches, but it's really more about the quantity. Excess consumption of any boozy beverage can lead to a headache or migraine.
Everything from chocolate to MSG-containing foods have been linked to headaches and migraines, but keep in mind that "food triggers are often specific to individuals. What triggers a migraine in one person may not do the same to others," Splaver says.
Related: Are There Really Side Effects to MSG Consumption?
About 20 percent of individuals who experience headaches are said to have food sensitivities as well, notes the Cleveland Clinic. Try keeping a food and symptom diary. If you frequently experience worsening symptoms 30 minutes to 12 hours after consuming a certain item, eliminate it and monitor the changes.
"Food and dietary triggers are a controversial topic in migraine. Unfortunately there is not a lot of good scientific evidence to suggest that there is one food that everyone should steer well away from. Having said that, quality matters. Eating too many processed foods with unfriendly ingredients can be a trigger for people living with migraines," Cincinnato says. "I've found in my own migraine condition that, all else being equal, the fewer processed foods I consume, the better I feel. This real food approach is not just good for migraine, it's good for the brain and for your overall health and longevity."
You can't control the weather. Turns out, it can control your health.
"A large change in barometric pressure is a common trigger," Cincinnato says, and the other experts note that rapid shifts in temperature can also impact your head health.
Keeping a stash of emergency snacks is clutch.
"Missing a meal can be a trigger, so remembering to consistently eat and drink is important," Splaver says.
Try your best not to skip meals as low blood sugar can be bad news for your head health, Armand adds (not to mention your mood).
Whether it's due to work, relationship woes, finances, or something else, stress can do more than make you sweat.
"Sometimes it may not be the stress itself, but the change in stress. School teachers have referred to a let-down migraine attack during school holidays or weekends," Cincinnato says.
This stress can also impact your zzzs, and sleep deprivation is another common trigger. With that in mind, add these seven stress-fighting foods to your diet. They can't hurt!
Should you just take it easy, or do you need care from a specialist?
There are three main occasions when you should seek medical attention, Cincinnato says.
First. "For your first attack of significant head pain, it is worth seeing the doctor. You want to receive a medical diagnosis for the condition, as this will inform your management strategy and help prevent you from getting worse," he says.
Worst. "If you have the worst attack you've ever had, it's a good idea to seek medical attention. It is not common, but sometimes migraines can mask secondary headache disorders which can be life-threatening."
Change. "If you notice a significant change in the pattern, symptoms, frequency or severity it is worth speaking to your medical professional. They may adjust your management plan and discuss new options to help you manage your condition," Cincinnato says.
There are a variety of medications to both treat and prevent headaches migraines. Some who suffer have found success with Botox, stress reduction, yoga and massage, Splaver explains.