Sinus Headaches or Migraine? Causes & Treatments

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Sinus headaches, quite intuitively, relate to sinus infections. However, if your sinuses are not what is troubling you, it is possible that you may be suffering from a migraine, a painful headache affecting one side of the head. Migraines and sinus infections have several overlapping symptoms, causing many people to treat themselves as if they are suffering from one, when in reality they are suffering from the other. This article describes both sinus headaches and migraines, the causes of both and the courses of treatment that will best alleviate your symptoms.

Distinguishing Sinus Headaches from Migraines

Everyone has suffered from a headache at one time or another in his or her life. However, some of us are all too familiar with the signs and symptoms of a chronic headache that can interfere with our daily life. Headaches can be a constant and incapacitating illness. More than 45 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches each year, which is why characterizing a headache and in turn, selecting the appropriate treatment, is of utmost importance to a happy and healthy lifestyle.

What are the symptoms of a migraine?

Migraines are often misdiagnosed as sinus headaches and vice versa. Misdiagnosis occurs mainly because both types of headaches share very similar symptoms: sinus pressure and/or pain, nasal congestion and tired eyes. Some symptoms are exclusive to migraines,  like queasiness, vomiting and light sensitivity.

Migraines occur most often on one side of the head but can be on both sides as well. Migraines are frequently more painful than other headaches. This is due to the inflammation and swelling of the arteries and blood vessels, which leads to “vascular dilation.” Arterial swelling can cause a dull, tender, throbbing pain, that experts characterize as a migraine.

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Migraine pain is usually concentrated on one or both sides of the head.

There are two types of migraines: those with an aura and those without an aura. Aura migraines are often characterized by acute vision problems, such as seeing spots or white flashing lights, in addition to trouble with the olfactory, visual and touch senses. Migraines without an aura mean that  problems with the other senses do not exist prior to the onset of the headache.

What causes a migraine?

There are a variety of causes that are linked to migraines. For example, a migraine can be caused of any of the following:

  • extra stress and/or stressful work environment
  • poor sleeping patterns
  • poor eating habits and/or skipped meals
  • certain medications
  • sudden changes in altitude
  • dehydration and/or excessive alcohol use
  • excess caffeine intake
  • general fatigue
  • foods containing tyramine, including but not limited to:
    • red wine and other alcoholic drinks
    • processed meat
    • peanuts
    • certain types of bread, including sourdough
    • peas and lentils
    • certain types of aged cheeses
    • raspberries, bananas, plums, oranges and grapefruit
    • raisins, figs
    • avocado
    • MSG (often contained in Chinese food)
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Processed cheeses contain tyramine, a substance known to trigger migraine headaches.

What is the best way to treat a migraine?

Treating a migraine like you would a regular headache will not alleviate the migraine . It is important to pinpoint an approach that will best target the symptoms that are the chief causes. For example, learning how to manage added stress in your life is one way to curb migraine symptoms. Also, be sure to get at least six hours of sleep per night. Acupuncture is another technique that many people use to control the onset of migraine symptoms. In addition, if you are avoiding the trigger foods listed above, it may be helpful to consider nutritional supplements and/or vitamins to make sure you are getting the nutrients you need.

Doctors also suggest keeping track of the frequency of your migraines, in addition to jotting down important factors like symptoms, pain, duration and intensity. Taking note of any changes or consistencies in your condition can help when creating a treatment program. It will also help you figure out which foods or patterns in your life may be contributing to the frequency of your headache. For added convenience, there are many apps accessible to download on your smartphone or tablet (MigraineMeter and iHeadache) that help to facilitate this.

There are prescription drugs that can prevent or abort a migraine. The variations or options are enormous but your doctor may want to prescribe Sumatriptan tablets or Imitrex nasal spray. All medications have side effects so it is important for you to talk to your doctor and to be aware of what to expect.

Supplementing your diet with certain nutrients are also important when trying to reduce the onset of sinus infections and migraines. Consider incorporating the following types of nutrients into your diet:

  • Monounsaturated fats (found in olive oil)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (found in salmon and other fatty fish)
  • Riboflavin (also known as Vitamin B12, found in milk and veggies like broccoli, spinach and mushrooms)
  • Magnesium (found in spinach, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, quinoa, sunflower seeds, brown rice, whole grains)

Tip: Staying hydrated is also vital when treating a migraine. Drink plenty of water and sports drinks that contain electrolytes.

What are the symptoms of a sinus headache?

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, over 37 million Americans suffer from at least one sinus infection-related headache each year. The International Headache Society (IHS) characterizes the symptoms of sinus headaches as outlined below:

  • Thick, yellow or green, nasal discharge
  • Abnormal CAT scan or x-ray depicting sinus congestion
  • Symptoms of acute or chronic sinusitis
  • Swollen lymph nodes
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Sinus headaches normally cause facial pain in the bridge of the nose and brow area.

What causes a sinus headache?

Sinus headaches result from, you guessed it, inflammation of the sinuses. Pain from a sinus headache is usually concentrated in the bridge of the nose and forehead areas, which is very different from the areas that pain migraine sufferers. Some sinus headaches might also result in inflammation of the face or a “clogging” feeling in the ears. Nasal congestion can also cause of a sinus headache.

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Sinus headaches stem from inflammation of the sinuses.

While a sinus headache is most often a result of a sinus infection, they may also be linked to bacterial, viral or fungal infections and allergic reactions. In these cases, your sinus headache will likely accompany a cough, itchy or scratchy throat and/or fever.

What is the best way to treat a sinus headache?

Treatment options for sinus headaches vary, but most can be improved with over the counter medications like acetaminophen or decongestants. Antibiotics are usually reserved for sinus infections lasting more than one week. The length of your sinus infection is linked to whether you are suffering from a chronic or acute sinus infection. Chronic sinus infections usually lead to longer sinus headaches, while acute sinus infections are linked to shorter headaches. Make an appointment with your doctor to find out which if sinusitis is causing the sinus headache.

It is also important to take note of what season it is when you first notice your sinus headache. During the spring and fall months, sinus headaches may be the result of an increased pollen count in the air, meaning that allergies are to blame. In this case, treating the underlying allergy will ease the headache. You want to also make sure that your house is sufficiently clear of mildew, mold or dust mites. These factors can contribute to an increased amount of nasal congestion and/or sinus inflammation.

If left untreated, rarely a sinus headache can transform from a minor inconvenience to a serious problem. Sinusitis occurs very close to the brain, meaning that you could develop an infection which can affect both the central nervous system and the nerves that connect to your eyesight.

During your office visit with your ENT doctor, he will perform a physical examination with a thorough head and neck examination. He or she will also use a nasal endoscope to determine the anatomy inside your nose including a deviated septum, sinus blockages and inflammation. He might also order a sinus CAT scan to obtain a proper view of your sinuses and  evaluate obstruction and sinus congestion levels. These methods will allow your doctor to make a proper diagnosis and plan an appropriate treatment program. While a course of antibiotics, steroids or decongestants may alleviate sinusitis and decrease sinus headaches, surgery is sometimes needed in order to treat chronic headaches that are linked to more serious sinus and breathing problems.

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Remember to give your doctor a complete list of symptoms, plus details about the duration and pain level of the headache.

If you find yourself suffering from a sinus infection or migraine, be sure to review the symptoms listed above, and make an appointment with your doctor to treat your condition. If you are still unsure, testing can help distinguish one from the other. Remember to disclose to your doctor a complete list of your symptoms and inform him of your past medical history. Proper diagnosis and treatment may be just what you need to be on your way to a healthy, headache free life!

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