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Cluster Headaches Symptoms, Triggers, and Pain Relief Treatment

Facts and Definition of Cluster Headache

  • A cluster headache belongs to the primary headache classification system, and is the most severe form of headache in this class.
  • They are far less common than migraine or tension headaches.
  • This type of headache begins far more dramatically, and remains quite unique in their course over time.
  • As the name suggests, the cluster headache exhibits a clustering of painful attacks over a period of many weeks.
  • The pain of a cluster headache peaks in about 5 minutes and may last for an hour. Someone with a this type of headache may get several of them a day for weeks at a time - perhaps months - usually interrupted by a pain-free period of variable length.
  • More women than men suffer from migraines, and more men than women suffer from cluster headaches.
  • Most people get their first cluster headache at age 25 years, although they may experience their first attacks any time from their teens to their early 50s.
  • You can get two types of cluster headaches:
    • Episodic: This type is more common. You may have two or three headaches a day for about two months and not experience another headache for a year. The pattern then will repeat itself.
    • Chronic: The chronic type behaves similarly but, unfortunately, the person has no period of untreated sustained relief.

What Is a Cluster Headache?

There are two classifications of headaches, and cluster headaches are in a class referred to as primary headaches, and clusters are the most severe form of primary headaches.
  • Primary headaches occur on their own. Meaning that there is no other medical disease or problem that is causing the headache. This class of headache is divided into four main groups; migraine, tension, trigeminal autonomic cephalgias (for example, cluster headaches, paroxysmal hemicranias, and SUNCT), and a miscellaneous group.
  • Secondary headaches are caused by an existing illness or disease that affects the brain. The more serious examples include brain tumors, hemorrhagic and ischemic stroke, and head injury.

This kind of headache occurs in clusters, usually at the same time of day or night for several weeks. Clusters of attacks of pain strike one side of the head, for example behind or around one eye. The patient may even experience nausea and a migraine like aura. The intense pain generally peaks around 5 to 10 minutes from when the headache first begins, and then the pain continues at that peak intensity for up to three hours.

Cluster Headache Causes and Triggers

No one knows exactly what causes cluster headaches. As with many other headache syndromes, there are many theories, many of which center on the autonomic or "automatic" nervous system or the brain's hypothalamus. These systems play a role in rhythmic or cyclical functions in your body. The involvement of either system in the syndrome would account for the periodic nature of the headache.

  • Many clinical experts believe that cluster and migraine headaches share a common cause that begins in the nerve that carries sensation from the head to the brain (trigeminal nerve) and ends with the blood vessels that surround the brain.
  • Other experts believe that the pain arises in the deep vascular channels in the head (for example, the cavernous sinus) and does not involve the trigeminal system.

Other clinical theories and possible triggers include:

Last Reviewed 9/11/2017
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Cluster Headaches - Triggers

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woman with head pain

Is It a Migraine, Tension, or Cluster Headache? How to Tell the Difference!

Most people have at least one headache during their lifetime, so how can you tell if it's a cluster, tension, or migraine headache? While most researchers and doctors don't know exactly what causes some headaches, they all have certain patterns. For example, people with migraine headaches usually have symptoms hours before the headache begins, and the head pain isn't the only symptom. While cluster headaches come on without any warning. The pain is intense, burning, stabbing, and penetrating in or around one eye or temple.

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Cluster Headache »

Cluster headache (CH) is an idiopathic syndrome consisting of recurrent brief attacks of sudden, severe, unilateral periorbital pain.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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