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Comparing SUNCT Syndrome and Cluster Headaches

Man experiencing pain from frequent headaches

Frequent headaches can be caused by many factors, and various conditions result in pains that have similar symptoms. For example, SUNCT syndrome is sometimes mistaken for cluster headaches, and vice versa because of the similarities and common features of these two conditions. Frequent headaches can be related to both conditions, but they are not the same. In fact, these two medical conditions are distinctly different, which means that the recommended treatments are quite different as well.

This article provides a comparison between SUNCT and cluster headaches to help headache sufferers and their medical providers determine the cause of pain and the best treatment options.

What is SUNCT Syndrome?

SUNCT is an abbreviation that stands for “short-lasting unilateral neuralgiform headache attacks with conjunctival injection and tearing.” The headaches that result from this condition are one-sided and have autonomic symptoms. They typically involve very brief and moderate headache attacks that last about 15 to 20 seconds. However, these headaches often occur very frequently and up 30 times per hour. They cause pain on one side of the head and also result and redness and tearing of the eye on that side.

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What are Cluster Headaches?

Meanwhile, cluster headaches occur in cyclical patterns and often wake people up in the middle of the night. The pain from these headaches is centered around one side of the head and one eye. Cluster periods often last from a few weeks to several months, with remission periods following the headaches. Other typical symptoms of cluster headaches are restlessness, excessive tearing, a drooping eyelid, and a stuffy or runny nose on the affected side of the head.

Similarities Between SUNCT Syndrome and Cluster Headaches

One of the biggest similarities between these types of frequent headaches is their presence on one side of the head. This pain does not shift from one side to the other, and both conditions are more common among men. Other similarities of these frequent headaches include increased forehead sweating, conjunctival infection, and the possibility of hyperventilation.

Differences Between SUNCT Syndrome and Cluster Headaches

Despite the similarities, there are distinct differences between SUNCT and cluster headaches. The duration, frequency, and intensity of the two types of headaches varies greatly. Cluster headaches last longer, while SUNCT occurs more frequently in a given time period. Cluster headaches are usually more severe than SUNCT headaches. Also, cluster headaches are more commonly experienced at night, unlike SUNCT, which also isn’t triggered by alcohol use in the same way that cluster headaches are.

Why Do I Get Frequent Headaches?

The question of “why do I get frequent headaches?” is a difficult one to answer without an experienced physician’s thorough review of a patient’s symptoms and triggers. SUNCT has been notoriously difficult to treat, but certain medications, such as carbamazepine and lamotrigine, have proven effective in recent studies. Depending on the severity and reoccurrence of the headaches, over-the-counter pain relievers like Vanquish may be recommended for fast-acting relief. Meanwhile, the most common treatments for cluster headaches involve oxygen inhalation through a mask, triptans in injectable form, and preventative treatments like calcium channel blockers. This is why an accurate diagnosis is so important for treating the specific type of frequent headaches being experienced.

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