/ August 15, 2011/ Default, General, Sinus, Sinus Anatomy/ 6 comments

Sinus Headaches and Migraines: Which is which?

Has suffering from frequent headaches become  a part of your everyday life? Are these headaches affecting your daily function? Every one has a headache at some time or another, but for many people, headaches are an ongoing and debilitating problem. Statistics from 2007 show that 12 million Americans suffer from chronic headaches, meaning that they have a headache 15 days out of each month.

There are many different types of headaches, including: tension-type headaches, migraine headaches, sinus headaches, cluster headaches, organic headaches and rebound headaches. Today, I am going to be discussing migraines and sinus headaches and the difference between the two.


Though migraines afflict as many as 29.5 million people in the United States, they are commonly misdiagnosed as sinus headaches. This is because of the similar symptoms: pain and pressure in the sinuses, nasal congestion, and watery eyes. When nausea and sensitivity to light are also present, it is probably a migraine headache with sinus symptoms and NOT a sinus headache.


 For most people, migraines are unilateral, occurring on just one side of the head. Migraines are vascular headaches, meaning that the arteries in and around the brain change in size, setting off a chain reaction of biochemical changes is set. Serotonin levels in blood vessels and the brain are altered, becoming inflamed and swollen, and vascular dilation occurs. This is what causes the pain felt during a migraine. Migraine pain can begin as a dull ache before becoming a throbbing, pulsing pain. In addition, nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and noise also occur.

Migraines can be divided into two subtypes: with aura and without aura. Migraines with aura are experienced by approximately one-third of sufferers, which is when a manifestation of neurological symptoms signals the onset of a migraine. These symptoms include:

  • vision impairment
  • seeing dots or flashing lights
  • tunnel vision or blind spots
  • disruptions in smell, taste, or touch.

Migraines without aura, on the other hand, do not have these neurological symptoms before hand.


There are several different causes and triggers for migraines. These include:  stress, fatigue, bad sleeping habits, fasting or skipped meals, food, medications, caffeine, chocolate, alcohol, menses, hormonal changes, changes in pressure or altitude. The trigger foods known to cause migraines usually contain either additives or tyramine.  Additives include foods containing:

  • nitrates and nitrites (found in processed meats)
  • yellow food coloring
  • MSG (found in Chinese foods, processed foods, tenderizer, and seasonings

Tyramine can be found in:

  • red wine
  • alcoholic beverages
  • aged cheeses
  • processed meats
  • peanuts
  • pickled foods
  • sourdough bread
  • broad beans
  • peas
  • lentils

Avocados, bananas, citrus fruits, figs, raisins, red plums, raspberries, and chocolates also contain tyramine, so you may want to limit your intake—however, try not to completely eliminate them because these foods all have high nutritional value.


There are several different approaches to treating migraine headaches. Natural, preventative methods include: stress management, improving sleep patterns, acupuncture, avoiding trigger foods, and nutritional supplements. It is a good idea to keep a migraine diary in order to track possible triggers. This should include when the migraine occurred, location and type of pain, duration and intensity of pain, possible warning signs you may have experienced, the weather and if there was a recent change in weather, recent activities, foods and beverages you ate in the past 24 hours, possible stress causes, sleeping patterns, as well as any treatment methods you tried. If you are technologically savvy, you may find theMigraine Notebook App useful; however, there are also many paper versions that can be easily downloaded.

Stress is a major contributor to migraines and with the fast-paced lifestyles of many Americans today, learning to relax has many beneficial and enduring effects. Yoga, meditation, and aerobic exercise are all good ways of dealing with stress and relaxing muscles.Biofeedback is another stress-relieving method that uses electrodes to measure muscle tension so you can learn to recognize and relax tight muscles before they start causing pain. Stress management also has a positive effect on sleep quality, which can help reduce headaches. Changes in sleep patterns, lack of sleep, too much sleep, and jet lag can all trigger headaches. Acupuncture is yet another possible remedy where fine needles are used to either increase or decrease blood flow, depending upon the treatment plan, and whether you are using acupuncture for migraine prevention or for treatment during a migraine.

There are also certain nutrients that can be helpful, such as Omega-3 fatty acids, monounsaturated fats, magnesium, and riboflavin. Fatty fish, such as salmon, contain Omega-3 fats and olive oil contains monounsaturated fats–these healthy fats have been found to reduce the frequency, duration, and severity of headaches. In addition, these fats can help reduce inflammation that worsens migraine pain. Riboflavin (vitamin B2) can be found in milk, mushrooms, broccoli, and spinach. Magnesium is especially known to be helpful for women because of the role hormones play in causing migraines and many of these women have been found to be deficient in magnesium. This nutrient can be found in foods, such as spinach, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, swiss chard, quinoa, sunflower seeds, brown rice, and whole grains. There is not as much evidence for the effectiveness of riboflavin (vitamin B2), but the role it plays in producing energy may be linked to causing migraines when riboflavin deficiency prevents cells from maintaining energy reserves. Food sources of riboflavin are  in milk, mushrooms, broccoli, and spinach. It is also important to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated because dehydration can also cause migraines. These nutrients can be taken in supplemental form as well, but it is a good idea to consult your physician before doing so.

Now that I have gone through several non-medicated options of treating migraines, I will discuss some of the different medications use to treat migraines. There are different drugs to either prevent migraines or treat them after the onset. Triptans are a class of drugs that are used to treat the pain after the onset of the headache, while beta-blockers and antidepressants are used to prevent the occurrence of migraines. The most aggressive form of treatment is rescue medication, which includes injections of pain relievers or anti-nausea medications. This is only used when the other forms of treatment have not worked.

Sinus Headaches

Sinus headaches can occur when a sinus becomes inflamed from a sinus infection, allergic reaction, or tumor. This inflammation causes localized pain in the forehead, cheeks, and/or bridge of nose. In addition, there may be facial swelling, clogging of the ears, fever, and nasal discharge. When you have a sinus infection, the sinuses become blocked and the secretions cannot be drained. An x-ray will show if the sinuses are blocked and you may require antibiotics, as well as antihistamines or decongestants.

Migraines are commonly mistaken for sinus headaches, but sinus headaches are actually quite rare and usually result from sinus infections. They are cured when the infection is treated. It turns out that up to 90% of people thought to have been experiencing sinus headaches have actually been experiencing migraines. Often, taking sinus medications seems to alleviate the symptoms of a headache because the blood vessels become constricted; if the headache is not a sinus headache, however, this is a mistreatment and will only give temporary relief. Migraine symptoms will reappear shortly and often be worse. In addition, taking over-the-counter pain relievers, such as aspirin, Tylenol, Advil, etc., can cause rebound headaches because of the dependency that builds, which is certainly not desired by a chronic headache sufferer.

Headaches can have severe interferences with daily activities and responsibilities and proper diagnosis is essential for treatment. If you experience frequent headaches, you should consult with your physician or a headache specialist to figure out more about what is causing your headaches and what type of headache you are experiencing. This will help you pursue the proper treatment and reduce the burden that headaches may be having on your day-to-day life.

Disclaimer: Always consult a physician before taking any medications, over-the-counter drugs, or alternative treatments.

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About Alisha Mehta

My name is Alisha Mehta and I am a graduate student at Tufts University, working on my MS in Nutrition Communications and Didactic Program in Dietetics to become a Registered Dietitian. I grew up in Northern California where the Redwood forests, mountains, and beaches are abundant—of course, all these outdoor opportunities cannot come without allergies. I have been through (and continue to deal with) my fair share of allergy and sinus issues. As a weary sufferer of sinus problems, I became a daily user of Sinus Rinse ever since its development. I am passionate about natural health, food, nutrition, and fitness. Through this blog, I hope to create an ongoing dialogue on sinuses, allergies, and any additional health topics of interest. Please share any and all of your experiences and questions.


  1. excellent article i hope you more success thanks

  2. Great article about an oft-misunderstood ailment.

  3. I apppreciate this well needed information. I suffer frequent headaches on a daily basis and at times wish I knew why I suffer from such headaches. Every doctor I went to diagnose my headaches as migraines or sinus headaches but based on this info I now know that I’m suffering from migraine headaches. Thanks much for the info

  4. I suffered for years for what I and my immediate family thought was actually a migraine. However when I read all the symptoms of migraines, I never accompanied either one of them. I am taking about early 2000 and unfortunately i was in a developing country at that time and doctors there had no idea! However now I know that I get tension headaches. and the reason I found was basically I am allergic to certain foods! and the most innocent one which I had used all my life was actually tea! The fact that is the most painful is that whenever I would get this tension headache, I would drink more tea to make it less intense! Well I am happy now that I know what the problem was. However one must be careful in diagnosing what type of headache they have. https://www.healthbeacon.co.uk/articles/medical-conditions/migraine/2013/10/the-difference-between-tension-type-headaches-and-migraines.aspx touches on some ways to differentiate between the two.

  5. Thank you for explaining it all so well.  I have visited a neurologist for migraines and she prescribed anti depressents and Axert.  She never took 2 minutes to explain any of it to me.  This article was wonderful and a godsend that I am not alone.,

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