Did you know that about 90 percent of self-diagnosed “sinus headaches” aren’t sinus headaches at all? 

According to the American Migraine Foundation, they’re actually a migraine. 

This may be shocking if you’re one of those individuals who chalks your head pain up to your sinuses even when a runny nose, watery eyes and pain aren’t present. 

We’ve put together a guide to help you recognize the difference. 

What Is Migraine?

Many people think that a migraine is just a nasty headache. But it’s more than that. 

Migraine is a disabling neurological condition with many different symptoms and several treatment approaches compared to other headache types. 

According to the American Migraine Foundation, at least 39 million Americans live with migraines. But, unfortunately, many people living with migraines are not diagnosed, which means they’re not treated. Unfortunately, it also means the number of people living with migraines is likely higher. 

Common symptoms of migraine include:

  • Moderate to severe head pain
  • Head and facial pain that feels as if it is throbbing, pounding or pulsating 
  • Head pain that gets worse with activity
  • Nausea, sometimes vomiting
  • Sensitivity to environmental factors including light, noise and smells
  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose

What Is a Sinus Headache?

A real sinus headache, known as rhinosinusitis, is relatively rare. Viral or bacterial sinus infections cause them, and they are accompanied by thick and discolored nasal discharge. Sinus headaches may also resolve with over-the-counter medications.

With a true sinus headache, you will likely experience facial pain and pressure, a weakened sense of smell and, at times, a fever. In most cases, the pain of sinus headaches improves with antibiotic treatment (for bacterial infections) or time (in the case of a virus). However, if you continue to experience pain and headache after a week, you should be re-evaluated or treated for frequent sinus infections and sinus headaches.

Why Do We Misdiagnose Migraines as a Sinus Headache? 

The primary reason is that common sinus headache symptoms are similar to those of migraine. And the symptoms of a sinus headache sometimes occur with the presence of migraine. 

In a recent article, the American Migraine Foundation mentioned a study consisting of almost 3,000 individuals who reported at least six sinus headaches in the six months before the study began. 

These individuals were never diagnosed with migraine and had not received migraine-specific treatment. 

The patients were evaluated for migraines, and the researchers found that 88 percent of them had migraines and not the sinus headaches they thought. 

The article mentions another study, called the American Migraine Study II, as well. This study showed that many people with a migraine diagnosis previously thought they had sinus issues. This study had almost 30,000 participants, with about 50 percent being misdiagnosed with sinus headaches. 

Is It a Migraine or a Sinus Headache? 

Are there ways to know if it’s a sinus headache or a migraine when the symptoms are similar? 

If you’re experiencing head and facial pain, first determine if there is nasal or sinus congestion present. If so, it’s likely a sinus headache. If there is head and facial pain and pressure, nasal mucus congestion, the inability to function normally in your day-to-day life, light and sound sensitivity, and you are noticing these symptoms coming on with stress, hormonal fluctuations, changes in weather or something you ate, you could be experiencing a migraine. 

Another way to know is by taking the quick ID Migraine Questionnaire developed by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine:

  1. In the past three months, how disabling are your headaches? Do they interfere with your ability to function? (Are you missing work, school, family activities, etc.?)
  2. Do you ever feel nausea when you have a headache?
  3. Do you become sensitive to bright light or light in general while you have a headache?

If you answer “yes” to two of the above three questions, your head pain is likely going to be a migraine and not a sinus headache. Conversely, if you answer “yes” to all three of the criteria, the chance that you are experiencing migraines is 98 percent. 

Learn more about different types of headaches here. If you feel as if your “sinus headaches” are actually migraines, ask us how we can help. Our treatments target your migraine head pain and other related symptoms to improve your quality of life. 

We can also help rule out sinus pain with an appropriate exam and other diagnostics. 

We can help because we understand chronic head pain. We know it can be disabling, overwhelming and disrupting — even life-altering. We are here for you and can help you get a correct diagnosis. 

Have you had a diagnosis of migraine? Call us today to schedule a consultation or ask us about our migraine and head pain treatment plan. We look forward to hearing from you.