Cluster Headache: Facts, Causes and Treatments


Cluster headaches are a rare type of headache that tends to come in cycles. They’re usually worse in the spring and fall, with symptoms coming and going for weeks or months at a time. Cluster headaches are often mistaken for other types of headaches, which makes them difficult to diagnose.

What is cluster headache?

Cluster headaches are intense and debilitating, with patients experiencing one or two attacks a day for several weeks, followed by months to years of remission. Patients may describe their pain as stabbing or burning in quality, often accompanied by tearing and redness of the eye on the side of the pain.

Symptoms typically occur on one side of the head behind either eye (which tend to be bloodshot), but they can also appear at other sites such as around an ear or temple. They usually first appear during childhood or early adulthood and affect both sexes equally; however, men are more likely than women to experience cluster headache attacks that recur over many years—making it difficult for them to work or engage in social activities.

Causes of cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are caused by a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. As such, they’re not entirely preventable. However, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing cluster headaches and make the symptoms easier to manage when they do occur.

If you have a family history of cluster headaches or evidence that suggests your genetics play a role in how you experience the condition (e.g., if you also experience migraines), consider taking these steps:

Affects on the body and brain

Cluster headaches are felt as a sudden, severe pain behind one eye. The pain is often described as sharp, burning or stabbing, and it can last for 15-180 minutes. Other signs and symptoms of cluster headaches include:

  • Visual disturbances (blurring of vision)
  • Tearing or watery eyes
  • Nasal congestion, runny nose
  • Pain around the forehead or temples

Diagnosing cluster headaches

If you think you might have cluster headaches, your doctor will do a physical examination and ask about your symptoms. Your doctor may also order blood tests, MRI, CT scan or other tests to rule out other conditions.

Your doctor might refer you to a specialist for further testing if there is uncertainty about the diagnosis. A variety of medications are used to treat cluster headaches including oxygen therapy as well as pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen (Advil).

Treatments for cluster headaches

If you have cluster headaches, the first step to finding relief is to see a doctor who can diagnose the condition. Once diagnosed, there are many treatment options available to help manage your symptoms.

Some of these treatments include:

  • Medications such as verapamil (Calan), lithium (Eskalith), propranolol (Inderal), pizotifen (Sandomigran) and methysergide (Sansert) may help prevent future attacks by reducing the number of headache days per month.
  • Surgery: If other treatments aren’t working, your doctor may recommend surgery. The most common types of surgeries include radiosurgery and microvascular decompression. These procedures involve destroying blood vessels in the brain that are believed responsible for causing cluster headaches by delivering radiation or freezing them with liquid nitrogen or alcohol injections directly into them respectively.* Relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga and breathing exercises might be helpful in easing tension associated with these headaches if you have time between episodes.* Acupuncture has been shown to reduce pain caused by cluster headaches but only when performed within one hour after an attack begins.* Hypnosis has also been shown to be effective at treating cluster headaches; however it requires training from a qualified professional for maximum effectiveness.* Cannabis has been shown through anecdotal evidence online forums such as Reddit where users report its effectiveness against their condition – however this isn’t enough evidence yet because there hasn’t been large scale studies done on cannabis’ effects on treating cluster headaches yet so we’ll just wait while more research gets done!

Preventing cluster headaches

Preventing cluster headaches is an important part of managing the condition, as it will reduce the number of attacks you have and make each one less severe. Avoiding triggers is a good place to start. These include:

  • Alcohol
  • Tobacco smoke
  • Strong smells (such as perfume)
  • Bright lights and loud sounds

Cluster headaches are hard to diagnose, but there are good treatments available.

Cluster headaches are difficult to diagnose because they usually don’t have any accompanying symptoms. Other types of headaches, such as migraines and tension-type headaches, can cause nausea or vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and other noticeable symptoms. But the pain from a cluster headache comes on suddenly and sharply without much warning.

If you think you may have cluster headaches:

  • Don’t panic! Cluster headaches are not dangerous; they’re not contagious; and they’re not a sign of anything serious like brain tumors or strokes—just an annoying (though sometimes debilitating) disorder that affects about 0.5% of men and 0% of women in the U.S.* If you experience frequent attacks with consistent symptoms for one year straight, however, it’s worth talking to your doctor about getting tested for other conditions that could be causing similar side effects (such as sleep apnea).


Cluster headaches can be a serious and disabling condition, but they are not always easy to diagnose. Most patients will have an attack within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms and then go back to normal for weeks or even months before another one hits. This means that doctors need to keep an eye out for any signs that could indicate a headache is coming on so they can start treatment early. Treatments include medication as well as other options like acupuncture or cognitive behavioral therapy which may help reduce the frequency of attacks over time.

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