Migraine - The Words 'Migraine' and 'Headache' Are Not Interchangeable

Patient Expert
Medically Reviewed

To encourage accuracy, increase public awareness, and reduce social stigma for everyone impacted by any headache disorder, it's important to understand that the words headache and migraine are not interchangeable. Words have enormous power, and we show respect for that power by building a strong habit of using the correct works when talking about seemingly related - but quite distinct - conditions.

Aiming for Accuracy:

Migraine is a genetic neurological disease characterized by episodes during which multiple symptoms occur. These episodes are often, and accurately, called migraine attacks. A headache alone does not meet the diagnostic criteria for migraine, and some migraine attacks occur with no headache at all.

When a headache does occur during a migraine attack, it's one symptom of the attack. Contrary to common misconceptions, a headache that occurs during a migraine isn't always severe. It can range from mild to severe, and it may not be the most severe or debilitating symptom of the migraine attack.

Raising Public Awareness:

The lack of understanding about migraine among the general public can not only be frustrating, it can contribute to some very difficult situations. When most people hear the word headache, they think of the "average" headache that almost everyone encounters from time to time. They also tend to think about grabbing some acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve those headaches. So, if we say we have a headache rather than saying we have a migraine, it's really not surprising that so many people don't "get it" and suggest simple over-the-counter remedies to combat a migraine.

Of course, it's not always as simple as remembering to say we have a migraine instead of saying we have a headache. People who don't get migraines themselves and aren't close to anyone who does may very well not understand the difference. It can be hard to explain to people. If you'd like to have material on hand to help, check out Teaching Others About Migraine - A Letter to Use.

Social Stigma:

The social stigma surrounding migraine disease is, unfortunately, all too prevalent. Research has shown that the stigma associated with migraine disease increases the burden of living with the disease.

Merriam-Webster defines stigma as, "a set of negative and often unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something." There's nothing "fair" about this stigma, but it exists, it hurts us, and it's not going to go away on its own. That doesn't mean we have to sit back and tolerate it. This is a time to remember and utilize the power of words. Every effort to affect change adds up like coins in a jar. Remembering that the words migraine and headache are not interchangeable and using them correctly can help dispel the age-old stigma.

See More Helpful Articles:

Anatomy of a Migraine

The Stigma of Migraine - The Journey of Living with and Fighting It (Infographic)

Migraine Burden Worsened by Stigma


Park J.E.1; Kempner J.2; Young W.B. "The Stigma of Migraine." Poster presentation. 52nd annual meeting of the American Headache Society. Los Angeles. June, 2010.

Holohan, Ellin. "For Migraine Sufferers, Stigma Adds to Burden." HealthDay News. Bloomberg Businessweek. June 25, 2010.