A cluster headache is the king of headaches. No other type of headaches can come close to matching it in severity. If you thought that migraines were extreme headaches, take a look at cluster headaches. They are, indeed, the worst of the worst.
Fortunately these headache are not common. Only one person out of a thousand can ever expect to experience one, and they affect more men than women. Most cluster headaches will be diagnosed before the person suffering hits 30. They also have some prominent headache symptoms that differentiate themselves from the rest of the headaches.
Cluster Headache Symptoms
Similar to a migraine, a cluster headache is usually one-sided with the pain remaining only on this side. Generally, when a person is prone to these headaches, the cluster will always return to the same side for every attack.
The pain occurs near the region of the eye and may radiate outward from there. It can be a pulsing headache or a continuous sharp pain. A cluster headache can also cause the scalp to become tender.
Cluster headaches have a different set of symptoms associated with them than migraines. There is seldom any nausea or vomiting involved and they do not have a migraine aura. These headaches begin quickly and are not usually as long-lasting as a migraine. They are often thought of as being a form of migraine since they are extremely painful, but they are not related. A cluster headache is in a class of its own.
Frequency and Duration
These headaches are known as a cluster because of their frequency. They arrive in clusters daily and usually at the same time. Most people that suffer from these headaches get between one to three headaches per day. If the headache occurs at night the person will wake up at the same time every night to face the music.
The episodes can last anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours or more. In most cases, however, the headaches usually don’t last any longer than an hour and a half.
There are chronic sufferers that only get relief from these headaches for 2 weeks per year. The rest of the time they are fighting off these headaches on a daily basis. A cluster headache sufferer needs to plan his day according to the schedule of his headaches.
Fortunately only 20% of the cluster headache sufferers have chronic symptoms. Most have cluster headaches that are episodic, meaning that they come daily for a certain amount of time. A cluster headache can turn on every day for a week, a month or even a year. Between attacks there is relief for at least 14 days.
When a cluster headache is about to start there may be some warning signs or there may not be any. Here are some of the most classic signs that a cluster headache will begin shortly.
1. A burning sensation on one side of the head.
2. Sensitivity to light.
3. One eye begins to droop or swell.
4. Nasal congestion or discharge from the nostril on the side where the headache will appear.
Causes of a Cluster Headache
Two schools of thought exist regarding the cause of a cluster headache. Some experts believe that these headaches start in the trigeminal nerve. This nerve is the one responsible for carrying sensation to the head. Other experts believe that the pain is caused from the vascular head channels and does not have anything to with the trigeminal nerve.
Preventative – Doctors often prescribe medications to help prevent these clusters. While they can help lessen the severity and the length of these headaches, they do not usually prevent them from occurring altogether. Common medications prescribed include ergotamine tartrate, verapamil, divalproex sodium, lithium and prednisone.
Abortive – These drugs are taken after the onset of the headache. Common medications include intranasal lidocaine and ergotamine drugs. Other treatments include the administration of oxygen through a mask and Imitrix injections.
Surgery – This operation centers on interrupting or blocking the trigeminal nerve that is sending all this pain to the head. There has not been a lot of research done on this option since it is relatively new, so it is considered as a last option in most cases.
A cluster headache can change a person’s life. Someone that suffers from these headaches has to live his life around them. His whole existence and everything he does will be based on their frequency and severity. While medical treatments sometimes provide relief, most people still have to deal with the pain in one form or another. There are alternative treatments available for cluster headaches and many sufferers are using them with good results.