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Cluster Headaches: An Overview

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Cluster headaches are sudden, very severe headaches that are recurrent and occur in bouts of up to eight times a day, every day for several weeks or months. A period of no headaches for months or even years can follow.

Sometimes the headaches may occur for a year or more without stopping. This is called a chronic cluster headache.

They cause intense pain around the eye or one side of the head. Attacks are usually brief but can last between 15 minutes and three hours. Attacks are more common at night.

Other symptoms include:

• Burning pain in the head
• Swelling under the eye
• Red eyes or a red face
• A runny or blocked nose
• Excessive tears.

Men are more likely to suffer with cluster headaches. Around one in 1000 men get them, compared with only one in 6000 women. Many sufferers are smokers, so you should try to quit smoking to improve your chances of recovering from cluster headaches.


Your doctor can diagnose cluster headaches by examining you and taking a medical history. Since headaches can be caused by other things, he may order an MRI scan to rule out other possibilities.


Over-the-counter painkillers don’t work as a treatment for cluster headaches because they take too long to take effect and many cluster headaches are over in a few minutes.

An injection called Imigran can be given. This narrows your blood vessels and reduces blood flow to your brain. Your health care provider can teach you how to give these injections yourself at home. You are only allowed a maximum of two injections per 24 hours. You shouldn’t have this injection if you have heart disease.

There is also a nasal spray version of the drug if you don’t like needles or can’t have the shot.

The anti-psychotic drug lithium is sometimes offered as a treatment for cluster headaches if they happen often or last a long time. Other medications such as verapamil (a heart disease treatment) can be given but the doctor may monitor your heart at the same time.

Sometimes occipital nerve blocks (injections of anaesthetic and steroid into the occipital nerves at the back of the neck) can also stop cluster headaches.

Oxygen therapy

Breathing pure oxygen through a mask has been shown to help cluster headaches so your doctor may give you oxygen cylinders to use at home.

Prevent Cluster Headaches

• Give up smoking.
• Stop drinking alcohol during the times you normally get headaches.
• Try to keep cool in hot weather as heat can trigger an attack.
• Don’t exercise in hot weather, wear a sun hat, stay in the shade and drink cool drinks.


Cluster Headaches – Treatment, NHS Choices. Web. 14 October 2011. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/cluster-headaches/Pages/Treatment.aspx

Cluster Headache, Medline Plus. Web. 14 October 2011. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000786.htm

Different Types of Headache. Migraine, Tension, Cluster, Chronic, TMJ, Trigminal Neuralgia and Sinister Headache Types. Headachetest.co.uk. Web. 14 October 2011.

Joanna is a freelance health writer for The Mother magazine and Suite 101 with a column on infertility, http://infertility.suite101.com/. She is author of the book, 'Breast Milk: A Natural Immunisation,' and co-author of an educational resource on disabled parenting.

Reviewed October 14, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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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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