Cluster Headaches

What are cluster headaches?

A cluster headache is an uncommon type of headache that can cause sudden severe pain on one side of the head, usually around or behind an eye. The headache usually lasts 30 to 45 minutes. The pain usually ends as suddenly as it begins. The headache usually happens at the same time every day for several weeks and then goes away for a few months. You may get them at night after you have fallen asleep. The days or weeks when you are having the headaches are called a cluster period. Most people with cluster headaches have 1 or 2 cluster periods a year. They often occur in the spring or fall, but can happen any time of the year.

What is the cause?

The cause of cluster headaches is not known. They happen in men more often than women. They do not seem to be caused by disease and they do not run in families like some other types of headaches.

Cluster headaches may be triggered by:

  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine products, such as cigarettes
  • Stress
  • Bright or glaring lights
  • Lack of sleep

Keeping a headache diary may help show a pattern for when you have headaches. It may teach you about possible triggers and help you to avoid them.

What are the symptoms?

Intense pain on one side of the face or head is the main symptom. The headache hurts the most about 5 to 10 minutes after it starts.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Eye redness or watery eyes, usually on the same side as the headache
  • A stuffy or runny nose, usually on the same side as the headache
  • Red, flushed face
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness

How are they diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Your provider will also want to know what medicines you are taking and about your use of alcohol and tobacco. It will help if you keep a record of:

  • When you have the headaches
  • What part of your head or face is affected
  • How bad the pain is and how long it lasts
  • Other symptoms you have at the same time
  • Anything that seems to make the headache better or worse

You may have tests, such as CT or MRI scans, to rule out other serious causes of the headaches.

How are they treated?

Fast acting medicine may be prescribed to relieve the pain when you have a headache.

There are several types of medicines that your healthcare provider may prescribe to treat or try to prevent the headaches. It’s important to take this medicine as soon as the headache starts because the pain of a cluster headache gets severe very quickly. For this reason, your provider may prescribe this medicine as a shot or in a form that you can inhale through your nose. Nonprescription pain medicines usually don’t help because they don’t work fast enough. It’s important to try to treat the pain before it gets severe.

Breathing pure oxygen through a mask may also help.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. Ask your healthcare provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them
  • Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests. Contact your healthcare provider if you have new or worsening symptoms.

During a cluster period:

  • Take medicine prescribed by your provider exactly as directed.
  • Don’t change your sleep patterns. Especially avoid taking afternoon naps, which seem to bring on the headaches in many people.
  • Don’t drink alcohol.
  • Don’t smoke.

Keep track of your headaches. Write down when they happen, what you have had to eat or drink, how long they last, and what seems to help. This can help you and your healthcare provider find the best prevention and treatment.

The intense pain from cluster headaches that keep coming back can make you depressed or anxious. You may find that talking with a counselor will help you cope with the effects of cluster headaches. Sometimes joining a headache support group can help.

How can I help prevent cluster headaches?

Try to figure out what seems to trigger your headaches and avoid those things. A healthy lifestyle may also help:

  • Eat a healthy diet. Ask your provider about the benefits of talking to a dietician to learn what you need in a healthy diet.
  • Limit nicotine and alcohol.
  • Learn to manage stress. Ask for help at home and work when the load is too great to handle. Find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks. Try deep breathing exercises when you feel stressed.
  • Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-10-30
Last reviewed: 2014-10-30
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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