Health A-Z

Cluster Headache

Clinical Definition

Cluster headaches appear to be associated with activity in the hypothalamus, the brain region that houses the circadian clock and the trigeminal nerve. Though not nearly as common as tension headaches or migraines, cluster headache pain can last anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours or so. The trigeminal nerve triggers the ocular pain associated with this headache and activates the parasympathetic autonomic system, leading to ocular redness and nasal congestion. Possible treatments include oxygen therapy, taking medications and avoiding triggers (e.g., alcohol, tobacco, allergens, etc.).

In Our Own Words

Cluster headaches are painful to the point of earning the nickname “suicide headaches.”  Relatively rare, they affect about 1 in 1,000 people, predominantly males. The cluster headaches typically begin before age 30,  and episodes are short-lived but extremely unpleasant. They occur repeatedly (hence, the ”cluster” name) over a few weeks or months and then tend to disappear for months or years.

A single headache may last up to three hours and may occur multiple times a day. Pain occurs on one side of the head, often around the eye area. Typically, the pain from a cluster headache will wake a person only a couple hours after he or she falls asleep. The exact cause is not known, but it has been linked to the year’s seasons, as the headaches tend to come on in spring or in autumn.

Those who smoke and drink alcohol often and those with sleep apnea more commonly suffer from cluster headaches. During a cluster period, small amounts of alcohol and nicotine can be triggers. Treatments include avoidance of the triggers, injections of pain-relieving medication, oxygen inhalation and preventive medicines that decrease the length and severity of the headache.

Symptoms and Side Effects

  • Pain on one side of head
  • Eye redness or tearing
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Swelling of eyelid, forehead and face
  • Droopy eyelid
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