Although the least common of the primary headache types, cluster headaches still affect an estimated one million Americans. Some 90 percent of sufferers are male.
Cluster headaches start suddenly. Attacks occur in cyclical patterns, or clusters – which gives the condition its name. A history of cigarette smoking and alcohol abuse is common among cluster headache sufferers, and alcohol often triggers attacks.
Cluster Headaches: Symptoms
Cluster headaches are distinct from migraine and tension-type headaches. These “alarm clock” headaches may strike in the middle of the night, and often occur at about the same time each day during the course of a cluster. Cluster headaches usually occur repeatedly on one side of the head and cause intense pain that feels like a stabbing sensation in the eye. Additional symptoms may include:
- Excessive tearing and redness of the eye on the side of the head affected by the pain
- Nasal congestion on the affected side of the face.
- Red, flushed face.
- Reduced pupil size.
- Drooping eyelid.
Cluster Headaches: Triggers
During active periods, factors that may trigger attacks include:
- High altitude
- Air travel
- Bright sunlight
- Foods high in nitrites
- Drugs that dilate the blood vessels (including nitroglycerine and various blood pressure medications)
When the cluster cycle is inactive, these triggers usually have no effect.
Cluster Headaches: Diagnosis
Accurate diagnosis is critical to successful headache treatment. That being said, both you and your physician need to communicate clearly to effectively diagnose and treat your disorder. Ask your doctor direct and specific questions and make sure you understand the answers. The more clearly and specifically you can communicate your symptoms to your physician, the more likely you are to find relief.
Headaches are diagnosed by matching symptoms to typical headache patterns. Keeping a headache diary can help your doctor identify triggers and isolate precipitating factors that may either contribute to or aggravate your condition. In addition, knowing your family medical history can help your doctor to accurately diagnose a disorder.
Once diagnosed, educating yourself on the type of headache you have and appropriate treatment for it can help you effectively manage it. For many headaches sufferers, some combination of stress management therapy and medication is often an effective way to manage their disorder. Because people react differently to various medications and therapies, you and your physician will need to find the right combination to help you prevent and effectively manage emerging headaches.
The good news is that headache research and treatment are evolving specialties. New and increasingly successful therapies are emerging every day.
Cluster Headaches: Treatment
Care focuses on controlling pain in acute attacks, preventing recurrences and minimizing the impact on the sufferer’s ability perform daily functions. Treatment usually includes pain relief and headache prevention medications, but may also require nerve injection, radio-frequency therapy or oxygen therapy.
Organization for Understanding Cluster Headaches
807 E. Broadway
Gladewater TX 75647
NIH Neurological Institute
P.O. Box 5801
Bethesda, MD 20824
Voice: (800) 352-9424 or (301) 496-5751
TTY (for people using adaptive equipment): (301) 468-5981