Tension Headache, Migraine, or Cluster Headache: What’s the Difference?

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MDJuly 31st, 2020
headache at home

Is it just stress or is your head actually a mess? Nowadays, stress has become an active nuisance in our day-to-day ventures. While some may find this lurking demon easy to ignore, stress can also have a way of making itself painfully known for others. Enter: migraines and headaches. The question then becomes: If you think stress and lack of sleep are the culprits behind your intense headaches, should you still be concerned?

Many people are blissfully unaware of the different types of headaches, shrugging off the pain with some ibuprofen and a quick nap. We beg to differ on this indifferent stance. In this article, we’ll navigate the differences and similarities between tension headaches, migraines, and cluster headaches—helping you discover the source of the pain, ways to treat it, and when to seek immediate medical attention.

Stop, You’re Giving Me a (Tension) Headache

False: You can’t give someone a headache. They’re not contagious. However, the triggers for tension headaches (the most common form of headaches) are virtually limitless and can be provoked by various annoyances.

Common Triggers & Symptoms

Tension headaches can be episodic or chronic, depending on their frequency. Described as lingering mild to moderate pain coupled with the sensation of tightness or pressure across your forehead, on the sides, or towards the back of your head, tension headaches generally form in response to stress, bad posture, poor diet, dehydration, anxiety, depression, or head injury. If the latter, monitoring your headache is extremely important as it could be a sign of serious injury.

The Light, It Burns: Life With Migraines

Contrary to popular belief, light sensitivity is just one small blip in the universe of triggers and symptoms for migraineurs (those who suffer from migraines). More serious than tension headaches, a migraine is a neurological condition with serious and debilitating symptoms that can, at best, be described as an intense headache. While some symptoms are similar to tension headaches—a steady ache or pain on one (or both) sides of the head—specific symptoms include:

  • Nausea, with or without vomiting
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, or both
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Moderate to severe head pain
  • Pounding or throbbing head
  • Inability to perform day-to-day tasks
  • An aura

The causes of migraines are just as varied as the symptoms, from mild to extreme. However, hormones and food are some of the most common triggers for migraines, particularly in women. Understanding and trying to pinpoint these stressors is one of the best ways to find a solution for your pain, but it’s not without its tests and trials.

Life With Chronic Migraines… Different Story

While acute/episodic migraines are somewhat manageable and can be treated with various home remedies or over-the-counter medications, chronic migraines (migraine symptoms on 15 days or more per month, within a window of at least three months) are a much more serious condition that requires medical attention. If left untreated, chronic migraines can increase in frequency and severity.

Cluster Headaches Are No Joking Matter

Excruciating pain in, behind, or around one eye?

Cluster headaches are some of the most painful, occurring in “clustered” periods around one side of your face (near the eye) and radiating out towards the rest of the face, neck, and back. The pattern of cluster headaches can last weeks or months and is typically followed by a remission period with lingering symptoms that can last for years. Here are some symptoms of cluster headaches that can help you spot the differences between what could be a migraine or moderate tension headache:

  • Excessive tearing
  • Restlessness
  • Eye redness (affected side)
  • Stuffy/runny nose (affected side)
  • Facial sweating (affected side)
  • Drooping eyelid (affected side)
  • Flushed skin
  • Swelling the affected eye

The biggest difference between migraines and cluster headaches is the restlessness, where a person experiencing a cluster headache is likely to pace back and forth or rock.

Experiencing Chronic Pain? DispatchHealth Is Here for You

If you believe that your headache has reached an extreme or if you experience chronic symptoms from a cluster headache or migraine, DispatchHealth is prepared to offer you the prompt, at-home medical care that you need. As one of the most dependable house call services for acute medical conditions, we are dedicated to providing the advanced medical care that you need when making a trip to the ER just won’t cut it. Arriving at your place of need with most of the equipment and technologies found at an ER, we will help you find ways to manage your pain and can even prescribe medications.


Reach out today to learn more; requesting care is as easy as contacting us via phone, mobile app, or through our website.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.healthline.com/health/migraine
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/tension-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20353977
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/migraine-with-aura/multimedia/migraine-aura/vid-20084707
  4. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cluster-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20352080
The DispatchHealth blog provides tips, tricks and advice for improving lives through convenient, comfortable healthcare.

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