Cluster Headaches – What Are They?

Cluster Headaches – What Are They?When it comes to headaches, many people have difficulty telling the difference between them.  For instance mistaking cluster headaches for migraines is one of the most common misconceptions.  If you’re unsure, your best course of action is to see your doctor.  However, let’s take a closer look at cluster headaches – what they are, what symptoms they present and the treatment methods that are available to you.

What are cluster headaches?

Not surprisingly, cluster headaches occur in clusters or cyclical patterns, hence their name. These types of headaches are often considered the most painful, and they’ve earned the nickname “alarm clock headache” due to the fact that they can awaken their sufferers in the middle of the night.

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Cluster headaches can appear for extended periods at a time, called cluster periods.  These could last from weeks to months and are often followed by periods of remission when the attacks stop completely. Once remission occurs, the sufferer could be headache free for months or even years.

Cluster periods can last anywhere from six to 12 weeks.  Interestingly enough, cluster periods can develop their own schedule.  For instance, headache sufferers can find that their cluster periods occur during specific seasons, such as spring or fall.

Unfortunately a cluster headache usually strikes quickly and without warning; however, there are some symptoms you can watch for.

What causes cluster headaches?

Researchers are unsure as to what actually causes cluster headaches, however they have some ideas as what contributes to them.  Surprisingly enough, the seasons play an integral part in these headaches.  Cluster headache sufferers are more likely to be plagued with them in the spring or fall than in any other seasons.  The seasonal nature these headaches most likely results from stimulation or activation of the hypothalamus.

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In addition, those who smoke and drink alcohol are more susceptible to cluster headaches. During a cluster period, the sufferer tends to be more sensitive to alcohol and nicotine and small amounts of either can trigger the headaches. However, during remission periods the sufferer can consume alcohol without provoking a headache.

What are some cluster headache symptoms?

  • Excruciating pain located in or around the eye but can easily radiate to other areas of the face or head
  • Pain on one side of the head
  • Restlessness
  • Excessive tearing from the affected eye(s)
  • Redness in the eye of the affected side
  • Sweaty, pale facial skin
  • Reduced pupil size
  • Drooping eyelid
  • Pain is often described as sharp, penetrating or burning.

People with this condition will often describe their pain as though a hot poker is being pushed through their eye or that their eye is being pushed out of its socket.

While migraine sufferers find relief from sleeping during their attacks, very often cluster headache sufferers stay on the move because a reclining position causes them more pain.

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Cluster headache treatment:

When in the throes of a cluster headache, many over-the-counter remedies fall short because the medicine often doesn’t kick in until the headache is gone.  There are some treatments that offer more relief:

  • Oxygen:  The inhalation of 100 percent pure oxygen for a brief period of time can provide dramatic relief to those who suffer from cluster headaches.
  • Triptans:  The injectable form of the drug Imitrex can soothe cluster headaches.  Imitrex is a drug used to treat migraines but will offer some relief with cluster headaches as well.  The first dose is done under medical supervision, but subsequent dosing can be done at home
  • Octreotide: This is an injectable synthetic version of the brain hormone somatostatin. It works similarly to Imitrex but is safe for those who have high blood pressure.

Cluster headache prevention:

It is one thing to treat cluster headaches when they start, but it’s quite another to keep them from occurring altogether.  There are a few different methods you can use; finding the right one with your doctor’s guidance is definitely the best way to approach this.

  • Calcium channel blockers: The calcium channel blocking agent verapamil (Calan, Verelan, others) is often the first choice for preventing cluster headaches. Longer term use is required to help manage chronic cluster headaches.
  • Corticosteroids: These are inflammation-suppressing drugs and are fast-acting preventive medications. They belong to a general family of medicines called steroids. Your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids if your cluster headache condition has only recently started or if you have a pattern of brief cluster periods and long remissions.
  • Nerve block: Injecting a numbing agent and corticosteroid into the area around the occipital nerve, located at the back of your head, can prevent pain messages from traveling along that nerve pathway. An occipital nerve block can be useful for temporary relief until long-term preventive medications take effect.

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Cluster headaches can be extremely painful but a quick visit to the doctor can help rule out other, more dangerous conditions.  You can also discuss treatment and preventative methods to help you regain a higher quality of life.

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