Cluster headache is a type of severe, recurring pain that is located on one side of the head. It received its name from the clustering, or pattern, of frequent headaches that usually occur.
There are two main types of cluster headaches: Episodic cluster headaches—These occur one or more times daily for multiple weeks. The headaches then go away and come back months or years later.Chronic cluster headaches—These occur almost daily with headache-free periods lasting less than one month.
Either type of headache may switch to the other type.
The cause of cluster headaches is not known. It is thought that there is abnormal activation of the area of the brain that is responsible for regulating temperature, blood pressure, hormone release, and sleep. The pain is thought to be caused by a combination of widening of the blood vessels and inflammation of the nerves of the face.
possible causes include: Alcohol useChanges in barometric pressureChanges in sleep patternTobacco useMedications, such as
Men aged 20-50 years are more likely to get cluster headaches. Other factors that may increase your chance of cluster headaches include: Prior head surgery or head injuryFamily history of cluster headaches
Cluster headaches may cause:
Stabbing, penetrating, burning, or explosive head pain that:
Begins suddenlyIs on one side of the head, but not bothOften starts around the eye and spreads to the same side of the headCauses facial flushingCan occur daily or almost every day for multiple weeksCan occur 1-8 times per dayLasts 15 minutes to 3 hoursOften occurs at about the same time each dayMay increase in intensity over timeMay start within 2 hours of going to sleepCan awaken you from sleepCauses an aura—This can include visual disturbance, visual spots, or the inability to move one side of the body.Restlessness and agitationNausea
During the headache, other symptoms may occur on the affected side, including: Stuffy or runny noseRedness or watering of the eye on one sideDroopy eyelidConstriction of the pupil of the eyeFacial swelling and flushing, sweatingSensitivity to light and noise
Symptoms of a Cluster Headache
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The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical and neurological exam will be done. A neurological exam may include examining: Mental statusCranial nerve functioningMotor and sensory functioningReflexesCoordinationWalking
The doctor will ask about the frequency and pattern of your headaches. To help provide answers, you may consider keeping a diary of: When your headaches started and endedWhat you were doing at the timeWhat you tried to relieve the pain
Imaging tests to evaluate the brain include: MRI scanCT scan
Treatment aims to reduce the frequency of headaches and relieving pain.
Maintain the same sleep routine. Avoid afternoon naps or sleeping in, which may bring on more headaches.Do not drink alcoholic beverages. Even a small amount of alcohol can trigger a headache during a cluster period.
techniques. Stress can bring on a headache.
Do not smoke
. Tobacco may interfere with medications.
Find out what your headache triggers are and take steps to avoid them.
Medications used to treat migraines often relieve sudden attacks of cluster headaches. These drugs must be taken at the first sign of a headache. Other medications may also be prescribed.
In some cases, the headache does not last long enough for medications to be helpful. Sometimes, the medications just delay an attack, rather than stop an attack.
Painkillers, especially opioids, may not be effective during an acute attack.
Other medications may be given to prevent or reduce the frequency of headaches.
Breathing 100% oxygen for 10-15 minutes often relieves cluster headache pain. This is often viewed as the front-line therapy for cluster headache. The oxygen appears to decrease blood flow to the affected area of the brain. People under age 50 who have episodic cluster headaches seem to benefit most from oxygen therapy.
Oxygen therapy can be expensive. There are also risks with this therapy.
As a last resort, some doctors may recommend cutting or destroying a facial nerve to eliminate pain.
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Last reviewed December 2014 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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