Cluster headache: What it is, symptoms and treatment


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A cluster headache is a very uncomfortable situation. It is a severe headache that arises from as a result of various crises. It is felt only on one side of the head and the pain may also be behind and around the eye. One may also experience a runny nose and inability to to do any other activity, since the pain is excruciating.

This type of headache has no cure. However, a neurologist may prescribe medication to relieve the symptoms and decrease the frequency of occurrence of seizures. Such drugs include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, opioids and, in some cases, there may be need to use an oxygen mask.

Symptoms of cluster headache

The symptoms of a cluster headache are very uncomfortable and a person may have episodes of severe headache 2 to 3 times a day for about 15 to 20 days. Moreover, it is common for the individual to experience these episodes in the early hours, about 1 to 2 hours after falling asleep. Other symptoms that are typical for a cluster headache are:

  • Throbbing pain only on one side of the head
  • Red eye and tearing on the same side of the headache
  • Pain behind and around the eye
  • Swelling of the face on the side of pain
  • Difficulty to completely open the eye located on the side of pain
  • Runny nose
  • Headache that lasts between 15 minutes and 3 hours, but more common to last for about 40 minutes
  • Inability to perform any activity due to severe headache
  • Pain is not influenced by luminosity or nutrition
  • Discomfort in the affected region after decreased pain
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It is not known when the crisis usually ends, but some people report that the headaches can be spaced; with fewer episodes occurring per day, until it completely disappears, recurring only months or years later. Furthermore, it is not easy to know what can trigger another crises months later.

Therefore, the doctor can make a diagnosis of the cluster headache by observing the symptoms experienced by the individual. He may also recommend magnetic resonance imaging to check for any brain damages. In case there are no alterations, the person will be considered to have a cluster headache. However, the diagnosis is usually time consuming and it can be made by a neurologist after many months or years. It is therefore, not common to diagnose a patient suffering from a cluster headache when they are in the early stages.

Main causes

For most patients stress and tiredness are some of the symptoms that indicate the onset of a crisis, but there is no scientific evidence to prove this. This type of migraine usually manifests itself in people between 20 and 40 years of age. The root cause is not known and most of the patients are mostly men.

It is believed that a cluster headache is related to the malfunctioning of the hypothalamus as it appears to be related to the circadian cycle, which regulates sleep and the time of waking up. Despite all these, the cure has not yet been found and the causes are not fully known.

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How treatment is done

Treatment for a cluster headache is prescribed by a neurologist and it aims to decrease the intensity of the pain and make the crisis last only for a short period. The doctor may recommend the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, tryphans, ergotamine, opioids and use of a 100% oxygen mask during times of crisis.

The seizures are more common at night and a good tip is that the individual should have an oxygen balloon at home whenever the periods of crisis arise. The pain will then decrease considerably and become more endurable. They should also take 10mg of melatonin before going to bed so as to relived the symptoms and decrease the risk of occurrence of a crisis.

In addition, the patient should not consume any alcoholic beverages nor smoke as these can trigger an episode of the cluster headache immediately. However, when not in a period of crisis, the individual can take alcoholic beverages as it will not trigger another episode of a crisis.

Possible side effects

Despite bringing pain relief, the medications recommended for cluster headache can have adverse side effects such as nausea, dizziness, a feeling of weakness, redness of the face, fever, numbness and tingling of the body.

However, using oxygen masks for about 15 to 20 minutes when the patient is seated and leaning forward brings rapid pain relief as quick as 5 to 10 minutes. It has no side effects when the patient does not have associated respiratory diseases.

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Common painkillers such as paracetamol have no effect when they are used to relieve pain. However, soaking your feet in a bucket of hot water and placing an ice compress on your face can be a great homemade solution. This is because it decreases the calibre of the blood vessels in the brain and it is therefore a useful remedy when fighting pain.


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Cornelius A.

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