10 Key Facts About Cluster Headaches

The Basics on Cluster Headaches in this Question-Answer Format

Cluster headache attacks are extremely painful and debilitating and can negatively impact one's life in a very significant way.

How Common are Cluster Headaches? 

A cluster headache is a very rare primary headache disorder, affecting only 0.1 to 0.4 percent of the adult population. 

What Does A Cluster Headache Feel Like?

A cluster headache is an extremely painful and disabling headache that is one-sided and occurs around or above the eye and/or in the temple area. It is often described as intensely sharp, burning, poking,or piercing. Most individuals suffering from cluster headaches are agitated and unable to lie down.

What Other Symptoms Occur With Cluster Headaches? 

Cluster headache attacks are accompanied by at least one autonomic symptom on the same side of the head pain. These autonomic symptoms include: a stuffy or runny nose, tearing or redness of the eye, eyelid swelling or drooping, pupil constriction (gets very small), facial swelling. forehead and/or facial sweating

What Triggers Cluster Headaches? 

Smoking is probably the biggest trigger associated with cluster headaches, both episodic and chronic. Drinking coffee (more than 6 cups a day), alcohol abuse (more than 10 drinks a day), and nitroglycerin are examples of other triggers, especially in chronic cluster headaches. 

Are There Other Names for a Cluster Headache?

Due to the severely incapacitating nature of a cluster headache, it has been referred to as a "suicide headache." It has also been named the "alarm clock headache" due to its interval occurrence. Cluster attacks characteristically occur on a near-daily basis for days, weeks, or months at a time.

How Are Cluster Headaches Classified?

Cluster headaches can occur episodically or chronically, like migraines or tension headaches. Most people suffer from them episodically. People who suffer from chronic cluster headaches have attacks that last for more than one year without a break, or if they do have a headache break, it's for less than one month.

The diagnosis of cluster headaches can be tricky, as there is no single imaging test or blood test. Also, it can often be confused with migraines, or a person may be suffering from both migraines and cluster headaches, which can complicate the diagnosis. 

How Long Does A Cluster Headache Last?

An untreated cluster headache lasts anywhere from 15 to 180 minutes. A person can experience multiple cluster headache attacks in one day – typically up to eight (but it can be more). 

Why Do Cluster Headaches Occur?

Scientists do not know the exact "why" behind this disabling medical condition. However, due to the periodicity with which it occurs, they think that the hypothalamus – a gland in our brain involved in regulating sleep and circadian rhythm – may be involved.

Who is Affected By Cluster Headaches?

They are 2 to 3 more common in men than women for unclear reasons and tend to develop in young adults, between the ages of 20 and 40. 

How Are Cluster Headaches Treated?

People with cluster headaches often require both acute and preventive headache therapies. Acute treatments include oxygen, triptans, dihydroergotamine, lidocaine, and octreotide. Preventive treatments include: verapamil, lithium, and certain anti-seizure medications. 

The Bottom Line

If you do suffer from cluster headaches, please seek guidance from a neurologist or headache specialist, so that a proper diagnosis and treatment plan can be devised. While challenging disorders, they can be effectively treated. 

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