FAQ’s on Cluster Headaches
What are Cluster Headaches?
Cluster headaches are a type of headache that is localized to only one side of the head, often occurring in groups – or “clusters.” Patients can experience episodic instances of cluster headaches over a period of weeks or months. Cluster headaches are thought to be among the most painful thing patients can experience due to headache’s severity, and may be so painful as to cause debilitating effects.
It is common for cluster headaches to appear in cycles, which have been deemed cluster periods. Patients commonly experience between one and two cluster periods in a given year, with each period having a variable duration of length. After each period has ended, there is usually a period of time before headaches occur again. This time varies from each patient, but can be as long as years in-between each cluster period.
During a cluster period, the headaches will typically be found to occur at the same time each day and have a similar duration in each occurrence. Cluster headaches can begin at any age, but have been found to occur most frequently in adolescence and middle age. They are also four times more likely to occur in men than in women.
What are the causes of Cluster Headaches?
The exact causes of cluster headaches remain unknown. There is thought to be a link between specific hereditary factors, as cluster headaches have been found to occur more often in a person who has other family members with them. Other potential factors that contribute include sudden surges of histamines and serotonin in the body, and may have causes linked to alterations or complications in the hypothalamus.
Patients most often find their cluster headaches occurring in response to specific outside influences, called triggers. Common triggers include the presence of bright lights, over exertion of their body, excess heat on the skin, foods with high levels of nitrites, specific medications, and changes in their surrounding environment (such as being at a high altitude).
What are the symptoms of Cluster Headaches?
In many cases, a cluster period will begin with a sudden and severe headache occurring between two and three hours after falling asleep. It is possible for this headache to occur during periods of being awake as well. The initial headache tends to occur at the same time each day during a cluster period. The pain of the headache is commonly felt as a sharp or burning feeling in one side of the head, spreading from the temple and eye to the surrounding portions of the skull. A patient’s eye might become swollen, red, and watery during this time. Some patients may experience symptoms in the nose as well if a sinus cavity is affected.
The initial feelings of pain tend to worsen quickly, and can be as sudden as 5 minutes after the first headache. Increased feelings of pain can least upwards of half-an-hour.
How are Cluster Headaches diagnosed?
Diagnosis of cluster headaches can be achieved by examination by one of our physicians. In many cases, inquiring about the unique symptoms present can be enough to indicate if cluster headaches are present. Patients may also be examined with a CT scan or MRI to ensure there is not a secondary cause of symptoms, but these tests are not always required.
What are the treatment options for Cluster Headaches?
Two of the most common methods of treatment include medication to assist with the headaches, which can reduce levels of pain, duration of the headache, and the frequency of occurrence. A second method of treatment includes inhalation of oxygen from a machine. Patients are encouraged to take their treatment at the first sign of a headache instead of waiting for symptoms to worsen.