Stroke and Migraine: The Differences

Blinding headaches are just one symptom of migraines. Confusingly, and worryingly for anyone who is experiencing one for the first time, a blinding headache is also a key symptom of a stroke. Migraines and strokes are both neurovascular disorders, and they both have symptoms which are similar – especially if the migraine which is being experienced is a migraine with aura.

A migraine (though an awful ordeal) will pass in time and not result in long-term damage, but a stroke is a condition which needs immediate medical attention in order to limit the resulting amount of damage and cell death in the brain. When a stroke happens one of two things has occurred. Either a clot has obstructed the flow of blood to the brain (an ischemic stroke), or a blood vessel has ruptured and prevented blood flow to the brain in that way (a haemorrhagic stroke).

It’s vital to know what the differences between strokes and migraines are, so this is what you should look out for: FAST. FAST is an acronym which stands for:

Face – is one side of the face drooping?

Arm – does one arm drift downwards?

Speech – is speech slurred or strange?

Time – act quickly and call 999 if you see any of these symptoms. 

The FAST acronym helps, but both migraine auras and strokes can include the physical symptoms listed within it, so these additional questions may help you to identify whether it’s a migraine or a stroke.

Is the onset sudden or gradual?

In general, a stroke will come on all of a sudden, while a migraine aura will slowly develop, with symptoms worsening over several minutes. This is one of the best ways to tell if it’s a stroke rather than a migraine. If it happens all of a sudden, it’s most likely to be a stroke.

Do you see more or less?

Visual migraine aura symptoms can include seeing spots, zigzag lines, flashing lights, or temporary partial loss of vision. Stroke on the other hand has the visual symptom of sudden trouble seeing with one or both eyes. Similar symptoms, but a subtle difference.

Past history?

Usually migraines occur first during childhood/adolescence (although they can begin at any age), and often the sufferer will have a history of migraines somewhere in the family. Also, the form which someone’s migraine takes tends to be the same every time; so if you’ve had migraines with aura in the past, it should seem familiar to you as a migraine aura. If however the symptoms you are experiencing differ from your usual migraine symptoms, or you’ve never had a migraine before, always err on the side of caution.

Both migraines and strokes can occur at any age and it’s always better to be safe, so if in doubt, call 999.

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