Cluster headaches are less common than some other types of headaches, but that certainly doesn’t make them any less painful. These types of headaches are characterized by brief, recurring episodes of intense pain on one side of the face. They can also be associated with watery eyes and a runny nose.
This type of headache can be very severe and has distinguishing triggers and effects. Here we detail the causes, symptoms, prevention, and treatments of cluster headaches to help you find quick, safe, and effective relief for your pain and discomfort.
What Are Cluster Headaches?
Cluster headaches are a primary headache disorder, which means that the headache is the primary medical condition. What distinguishes cluster headaches from other types of headaches is that they recur up to several times per day and are typically brief, but quite severe. Anyone who has had a cluster headache knows how excruciating they can be, especially in relation to localized pain around one eye.
When you experience a cluster headache, you will also feel more pain and discomfort on one side of your head than the other. The symptoms often extend to the eye, eyelid, and nose.
Cluster headaches can occur in an episodic form or a chronic form in different people. They often occur in bouts that last 6 to 12 weeks once per year or every two years. Most cluster headache patients experience the pain an hour or two after falling asleep and have remissions of 1 to 4 years.
Who Suffers from Cluster Headaches?
Cluster headaches are relatively uncommon among the general population and affect fewer than 1 in 1000 adults. But unlike some other types of headaches, they are more common in men than women. In fact, men are six times more likely to develop cluster headaches than women.
It is much less common for children to experience cluster headaches, and most cluster headache sufferers are at least in their 20s or older. Most cluster headache patients are men between the ages of 20 and 50. Genetics may also play a role in who develops cluster headaches, as first-degree relatives of cluster headache sufferers are more likely to develop the condition than the rest of the population.
Symptoms of Cluster Headaches
If you experience these symptoms, you may have a cluster headache that requires treatment.
- Localized pain around one eye
- Brief, but severe, recurring pain that lasts approximately 45-90 minutes
- Tearing up and redness of one eye
- One drooping eyelid
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose in just one nostril
- Red, flushed face
- Feelings of restlessness
The pain associated with cluster headaches often develops when you are sleeping and it can last for a few hours before going away. These types of headaches can be very frustrating and even debilitating because they often occur on a regular basis, even daily for a period of weeks or months. Then suddenly and without warning, cluster headaches can disappear for a few months or years, only to return at a later date.
Cluster Headache Triggers
Nearly all types of headaches have triggers, and these triggers vary from one headache type to the next. Consumption of alcoholic beverages and excessive smoking are two of the biggest triggers for cluster headaches.
Other provokers of cluster headache attacks are histamine and nitroglycerine, and some people experience these headaches after prolonged exposure to heat, exercise, and solvents. Sleep pattern disruptions, such as shift changes at work and jet lag, may also be triggers for people prone to cluster headaches. Because of their severity and frequency, cluster headaches can cause great distress and significant interruption to one’s life.
Preventative Measures for Cluster Headaches
Cluster headaches are among the most difficult headaches to prevent, but there are still some preventative measures you can take to reduce your risk. One of the best ways to prevent cluster headaches is to reduce your daily stress levels and maintain a healthy diet and sleep schedule. If you smoke, find a smoking cessation method that works for you to quit for good.
For severe and recurrent cluster headaches, medical professionals may recommend a number of preventative measures. These can include the use of preventative medicines like steroids, ergotamine, lithium, and calcium channel blockers.
Over-the-Counter Solutions for Cluster Headaches
Some treatments for severe cluster headaches include oxygen, ergotamine, sumatriptan, and intranasal application of a local anesthetic agent. Like migraines, cluster headaches may require specific medical management, such as medicines to act on receptors in nerves and blood vessels to stop a headache and preventative medicines taken daily to reduce the onset of cluster headaches.
However, some cluster headaches can be treated safely and effectively with over-the-counter medication as well. Some OTC rescue medicines, like Vanquish, are specially formulated for people who experiences frequent recurring headaches. With acetaminophen, aspirin, and a small dose of caffeine to speed the pain relievers’ effectiveness, Vanquish can gently and temporarily relieve minor pain caused by cluster headaches.