A cluster headache is a rare type of headache that is more common in men. Cluster headaches start suddenly. The pain is usually behind or around one eye and is very severe. The eye and nose on the same side as the pain may become red, swollen and runny. Cluster headaches also cause restlessness. These headaches can be frightening to the sufferer and his or her family.
A cluster headache can last a few minutes or several hours, but it usually lasts for 45 to 90 minutes. Cluster headaches typically occur at the same time each day for several weeks, until the “cluster period” is over. The most common times for cluster headaches seem to be between 1:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m., 1:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. and around 9:00 p.m. Cluster periods usually last 4 to 8 weeks and may occur every few months. At other times, no cluster headaches will occur.
Typical cluster headache characteristics include:
- pain almost always one-sided
- pain remains on the same side during a series
- pain can occur on the opposite side when a new series starts
- pain is localized behind the eye or in the eye region and may radiate to the forehead, temple, nose, cheek or upper gum on the affected side
- the affected eyelid may become swollen or droop and the pupil may contract
- the nostril on the affected side of the head is often congested
- nasal discharge and tearing of the eye is on the same side as the pain
- excessive sweating
- face may become flushed on the affected side
Cluster headaches are not associated with the gastrointestinal disturbances or sensitivity to light that is found in migraine.
The pain of cluster headache is generally intense and severe and often described as a burning or piercing sensation. It may be throbbing or constant, the scalp may be tender and the arteries often can be felt increasing their pulsation. The pain is so intense that most sufferers cannot sit still and will often pace during an acute attack.
Treatment does not cure cluster headaches. The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms. The headaches may go away on their own, or you may need treatment to prevent them.
Smoking, alcohol use, specific foods, and other factors that seem to trigger cluster headaches should be avoided. A headache diary can help you identify your headache triggers. When you get a headache, write down the day and time the pain began. The diary should include notes about what you ate and drank in the last 24 hours, how much you slept and when, and what was going on in your life immediately before the pain started. Also include information about how long the headache lasted, and what made it stop.
If you have just started to experience cluster headaches, see your doctor to rule out other disorders and to find the most effective treatment. Headache pain, even when severe, usually is not the result of an underlying disease, but headaches may occasionally indicate a serious underlying medical condition, such as a brain tumor or rupture of a weakened blood vessel. Additionally, if you have a history of headaches, see your doctor if the pattern changes or your headaches suddenly feel different.