Common Misdiagnoses of Migraine

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on April 26, 2023
3 min read

Headaches are super common. About one in five women and one in 10 men get bad ones regularly.

Headaches also are what doctors call a “nonspecific” complaint. That means they can stem from a lot of different health issues.

All this can make it tough for your doctor to pinpoint the cause of your headaches. When it comes to the type called migraine headaches, some studies suggest fewer than half of the people get the right diagnosis. That’s especially likely if you have other symptoms as well.

That can lead to some common mix-ups.

As many as three out of four people with migraines have anxiety. But a true anxiety disorder means you feel very anxious or worried most of the time for 6 months or more.

Other symptoms of anxiety disorders are:

  • Feeling restless
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Getting tired easily
  • Sleeping problems
  • Muscle tension

Even though anxiety and migraines can go hand in hand, they require different treatments.

This is the most common type of headache pain. It’s caused by tight muscles in and around your head and shoulders, and it tends to come on when you’re stressed or depressed.

Doctors often have problems telling a migraine headache form a tension headache or some other type, which can lead to the wrong treatment.

This happens when blood flow to your brain is lessened or cut off. Strokes can be severe, but they also can be mild.

In some cases, they’re so mild that you may brush them off. But they can cause headaches and other symptoms that are also caused by migraines. These include:

  • Sudden mood changes
  • Anxiety or worry
  • Depression
  • Low energy
  • Problems sleeping

Because these symptoms that follow a stroke can mimic migraines, your doctor may mistake your headache as post-stroke signs.

Meniere’s is an inner-ear disorder that usually causes symptoms like:

  • Dizziness
  • The sensation that your ear is clogged or blocked
  • Ringing in your ear
  • Poor hearing

Some people with Meniere’s also get migraine-like headaches, which can come with problems with balance or with your gut.

Some forms of this neurological condition cause minor, or partial, seizures. Symptoms can include bad headaches, as well as vomiting and sensitivity to light. Those also happen to be hallmarks of some types of migraines. In fact, doctors often confuse the two conditions.

A concussion is a kind of traumatic brain injury. Blows to the head or violent shaking can cause one.

After a concussion, some people have symptoms for weeks or months. These can include:

If you think you might have migraines and you’ve also recently hurt your head, be sure to tell your doctor.

These are sometimes called rebound headaches. They can happen if you take pain relievers, migraine headache pills, or other drugs more than a couple of times a week.

Experts don’t know exactly why these headaches happen. But if you’re getting migraine headaches all the time, you’re probably going to take something for it. And if you do, your doctor may think your problem is caused by your medication -- instead of perhaps the other way around.

Your sinuses are cavities that hold air and mucus. They’re in your forehead just above your eyes, and also on either side of your nose.

If they become infected, a condition called sinusitis, you can get headaches that can look and feel like a migraine. So it’s not uncommon for doctors to mistake one for the other.

Talk with your doctor closely and tell them if you feel like your treatment isn’t working or giving you enough relief. Also mention any migraine-related symptoms like:

  • Trouble with everyday activities because of your headaches
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headaches that come on with weather changes or stress

You could also get a second opinion. If you can, get it from a headache specialist, who has extra training and more experience with this condition.