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Cluster Headaches

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Cluster headaches are among the most painful type of primary headache. They are excruciatingly painful, and may occur several times every day for months at a time, often around the same time of day or night. Fortunately, cluster headaches are not common, and can disappear for months or years in between cluster periods.

This type of headache is more common in men than women and more common at night than during the day, often waking the sufferer. The headaches are unilateral and are usually accompanied by pain behind the eye, tearing, redness and drooping eyelid along with a runny nose on the same side as the headache. Because of these symptoms cluster headaches are sometimes confused with allergies or sinus problems.

Some people experience migraine symptoms with headaches, including nausea, light and sound sensitivity, and an aura. There may be swelling on the affected side of the face, as well as sweating, pallor, and a constricted pupil. Pain sometimes radiates to the neck and shoulders. The eye pain has been described as a hot poker in the eye or a feeling as though the eye is being pushed out of the socket.

Cluster headaches can occur at any age, but they are more common in people ages 20-50. They are also more likely to affect smokers and may be provoked by alcohol. The headaches can run in families, and are sometimes associated with head trauma. The pain usually reaches an apex within about 10 minutes of onset, and can last one or several hours. The cluster periods often occur seasonally, such as spring and fall.

Because the onset is so rapid, fast acting drugs are required to prevent or decrease intensity of the headache. Sufferers often feel restless or agitated, and prefer movement to lying down unlike most severe headache sufferers. Treatment may include injectable drugs or nose sprays, as well as maintenance medications to help prevent or decrease severity of headaches.

In severe cases, the headaches can become chronic, continuing for years with only a month or so between clusters. In these cases electrical stimulation of the occipital nerve or even cutting or otherwise destroying the affected nerve may be necessary to provide relief.

Add a Comment9 Comments

Interesting article! I've suffered with chronic clusterheadaches for nearly 25 years. Terribly debilitating disease-(Has it officially been classified as a "Disease" btw?) Anyway, after trying Imitrex injections 20 yrs ago & having a reaction to it, I decided to try it again 2 yrs ago, in a smaller dose..and it worked!! It's what I use now and I have my life back, after NOT having one for 20+ yrs! Terribly painful, horrific condition-Very misunderstood..We must continue to get the word out and educate people about this condition. That's my mission these days. It used to be VERY surprising to even see articles about CH, and now..like here for example..it thrills me to see!! Thank you for exposing this horrible condition that literally is taking people's lives..-How many people have committed suicide over having Clusterheadaches..and you would be horrified at how many people have posted to me.."Years ago, I knew this man(usually, it's a man..due to it being a male dominant condition)that killed himself over these headaches he had..I bet he had these kind of headaches you have, Shellie..oh my God how do you cope?!!" We must find a cure..!! Thanks for the article..Please let's see more on this topic!!

August 4, 2010 - 8:17am
(reply to Shellie)

Thank you so much for your comments, Shellie. You are right, in fact cluster headaches used to be nicknamed suicide headaches because so many sufferers took their own lives when they couldn't get relief.

I'm glad to hear you have found a way to manage your headaches. There are so many things yet to learn about migraines and cluster headaches.

August 4, 2010 - 5:17pm
EmpowHER Guest
Anonymous (reply to Cary Cook BSN RN)

This company is developing BOL-148 for chronic CH: www.enthoegencorp.com
Their published research looks promising.

October 6, 2010 - 2:07pm
EmpowHER Guest

After 28 years of living with my friend CH and trying many different ways of managing CH, the most effective way that I have found is through homeopathy. A friend of the family suggested that see a homeopathic consultant here in the Cleveland area. Under the direction of this experienced consultant, I must say that I am amazed at the results. One remedy actually stops a major attack almost immediately with no side effects. If I did not trust my friend's suggestion, I would be going through yet another round of painful and disruptive cluster headaches.

July 29, 2010 - 5:43am
(reply to Anonymous)

Do you mind sharing the name of the product? It might help others.

Thank you for reading.

July 29, 2010 - 6:49am
EmpowHER Guest

This article does not mention the number one treatment for cluster headache which is oxygen. I have had clusters for 52 years and tried all medications available. Most are not effective and have severe side effects. Others mask the headache, extending the cluster cycle and moving it from nighttime to daytime. Most specialists treat them as migraine, which they are not. I discovered oxygen 25 years ago and it has made the headaches managable.

July 29, 2010 - 5:12am
(reply to Anonymous)

Thank you for reading. I actually meant to put the oxygen in the paragraph that vaguely mentions treatments. Because of the word limit for my articles, I don't always get everything in them that I'd like, but I thank you for pointing it out. The beauty of this website is the sharing of knowledge, and you've added to that.

July 29, 2010 - 5:23am
EmpowHER Guest

Thank you Ms. Cook - this is a very accurate article on a very misunderstood disease. At one time it was thought only men suffered from cluster headache. then the ratio was thought to be 10 men to one woman, then 5 or 6 to one. Currently. many feel one third of "cluasterheads" are women, and the real number may be higher.

Also, it is now thought that cutting the trigeminal nerve is not an appropriate treatment for intractable cluster headache - it leads to permanent loss of sensation and movement in the face, and but does not permanently stop the cluster headache attacks.

One of the best treatment found so far is unfortunately illegal - small doses of tryptamine hallucinogens such as psilocybin seem very effective, based on anecdotal and preliminary research. A small clinical trial is now underway in Germany to test a non-hallucinogenic (and perhaps legal) cousin of psilocybin called BOL-148, and early results are very promising.

July 29, 2010 - 3:39am
(reply to Anonymous)

Thank you very much for reading and sharing your knowledge. I appreciate it.

July 29, 2010 - 5:20am
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.


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