Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are excruciatingly painful, start rapidly and typically occur several times a day.

What is a cluster headache?

Cluster headaches are an intense attack of pain usually felt on one side of the head, often around the eye. The pain is commonly described as a burning, sharp or piercing sensation that starts without warning and becomes very painful, very quickly. Other symptoms often include a watering or red eye and a blocked or runny nose.

The pain can be so excruciating and intense, that sufferers often feel restless during an attack and may react by pacing or rocking.

Attacks generally last between 15 minutes and a few hours, and typically occur between one and eight times a day. Bouts of cluster headaches can last several weeks or months at a time (typically 4 to 12 weeks), before they eventually subside. Remission - a symptom-free period of time - often follows, which can last months or even years before the headaches begin again. Cluster headaches tend to occur at similar times of the year and can be a life-long condition.

While anyone can get them, this type of headache is fortunately rare. Cluster headaches are more common in men and tend to start occurring when a person is in their 30s or 40s.

Cluster headache

Cluster headache triggers:

The exact cause of these kinds of headaches isn't entirely clear. Some studies have linked cluster headaches to activity occurring in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus.

Cluster headache attacks can sometimes be triggered by strong smells, such as perfume, paint or petrol. They can also be triggered by drinking alcohol and smokers seem to have a higher risk of getting this type of headache.

Some cases of cluster headaches also appear to run in families, suggesting there may be a genetic link.

Characteristic features of cluster headache:

During a cluster headache attack at least one of the following symptoms is normally present:

  • Red and/or watering eye
  • Drooping and/or swelling of one eyelid
  • Blocked or runny nostril
  • Sweaty face
  • Smaller pupil in one eye

Relieving a cluster headache:

Over-the-counter painkillers, like ibuprofen and paracetamol, aren't very effective for cluster headaches.1 Cluster headaches usually require specialist treatments that relieve pain when taken soon after a cluster headache starts. These include:

  • Sumatriptan injections
  • Sumatriptan or zolmitriptan nasal spray
  • Oxygen therapy

These treatments usually relieve the pain of a cluster headache within 15-30 minutes.

1 Source:

Please consult your GP before taking any medication for your cluster headache.

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