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Cluster Headache FAQs

What are cluster headaches?

Cluster headache is an uncommon condition characterized by short-lived attacks of sudden, severe pain around one of the eyes. The word cluster is used because these headaches typically come in groups or bunches. A person may have several headaches a day for weeks or months, usually separated by headache-free periods of varying duration. Many more people have migraine or tension headaches than cluster headaches.

The International Headache Society (IHS) classifies cluster headaches as episodic (occurring in cycles) or chronic (long-term without significant breaks).

Episodic cluster headaches are defined as those that occur in periods (clusters) lasting from 7 days to 1 year. Clusters are separated by headache-free intervals lasting at least 2 weeks. Clusters usually last 2 weeks to 3 months.

Chronic cluster headaches are defined as those that occur for more than 1 year without remission (intervals in which headaches do not occur) or with remissions lasting less than 2 weeks. Chronic headaches are classified as those that are chronic from the start and those that develop from episodic headaches. Chronic cluster headaches are very hard to treat, and standard preventive drugs often do not help people with this type of cluster headache.

If a person has the following signs and symptoms, he or she might have what are called symptomatic clusterlike headaches.

  • Lack of a periodic pattern (a pattern that runs in cycles)

  • Continuing low-intensity headaches between high-intensity headaches

  • Partial or little response to standard treatments

  • Weakness or other signs on one side

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