Cluster headaches are recurrent headaches that take place over a specific period of time. During an episode, a person experiencing a cluster headache may experience one to three of these piercing headaches per day, although it is not unheard of to experience as many as eight of these headaches throughout the day.
Cluster periods often last anywhere between two weeks and three months. Many people experience them at the same time of the year each year. Many report the headaches go away completely for months, or even years, only to one day return out of the blue.
What is unique about cluster headaches is that they often wake sufferers from a deep sleep due to the pain of these headaches. This usually happens about one to two hours into the sleep cycle and is often much more painful than a daytime attack. Another headache type that shares a similar symptiom is known as the hypnic headache.
Who Gets Them?
Cluster headaches most commonly occur in men under the age of 30. However, it is not unheard of for children to be diagnosed with this condition. Additionally, a growing number of women have been diagnosed with cluster headaches in recent years though men continue to be diagnosed as much as six times more often than women are. It remains a rare condition impacting only one person out of every 1,000, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Cluster Headache Symptoms
Cluster headache symptoms and signs often come on rapidly and may vary slightly from person to person. They include:
Intense, continuous pain that begins in the area around the eye. This pain may radiate to other areas of the head and face, including the cheek, temple, neck, and sometimes shoulder area
Pain is generally limited to one side of the head where the eye may become red and/or watery
Eyelid on the side of the head with pain may droop
Pupils may shrink
Sufferer may become sweaty or pale in the face
Sometimes, the nose one the affected side becomes stuffy, blocked, or runny
Cluster headaches last between 30 and 90 minutes though they may last as little as 15 minutes or as much as three hours
Experience one to three headaches per day during the cluster period, though some people will experience more
Those who experience cluster headaches say one of the tell-tale cluster headache symptoms are that the pain feels like being stabbed in the eye with a red-hot poking iron. Many people suffering through these headaches find it necessary to pace or rock back and forth in an effort to ease their pain. Most people who have cluster headaches find that lying down does not ease the pain as it does with other types of headaches. In fact, lying down often causes the pain to intensify.
How Cluster Headaches are Diagnosed
Diagnosing cluster headaches is tricky business since there is no clear-cut cause and headaches are often symptoms or side effects of other conditions. Many people are undiagnosed or underdiagnosed for years. Some have even been incorrectly diagnosed as migraines and other conditions.
A cluster headache diagnosis often involves a lengthy appointment with your doctor in which you discuss all your symptoms or during an actual episode or attack. MRIs and other tests or examinations are often used in the diagnosis process in an effort to rule out other potential causes of your headaches.
Cluster Headache Triggers
Seasons are, by far, the most commonly associated and known triggers for cluster headaches. Fall and spring seem to be the biggest offenders. Because they are seasonal in nature, many people associate them with allergies or work-related stress. Smoking and drinking alcohol in excess are also potential triggers for cluster headaches. During an episode, even minimal exposure to alcohol or nicotine can trigger or intensify the headaches. Other possible triggers include:
Nitrites in food
Treatments for Cluster Headaches
There are many different treatment options used in an effort to manage the pain and symptoms of cluster headaches. Since there is no identifiable cause of these headaches, there are no medications that can prevent them altogether.
However, a combination of preventative measures (such as avoiding the triggers mentioned above) along with anti-inflammatory medications, DHE (dihydroergotamine) injections, which should never be taken in conjunction with sumatriptan, or medications to treat the pain of the headaches when they do occur is often the most prudent course of treatment.
Don’t suffer in silence if you’re experiencing cluster headaches. There is help to manage the pain and lessen the intensity of these attacks. Work with your doctor now to manage the pain and take back control of your life from these excruciating headaches.