Cluster headache is a type of severe, recurring pain that is located on one side of the head. It received its name from the clustering, or pattern, of frequent headaches that usually occur.
There are two main types of cluster headaches:
Either type of headache may convert to the other type.
The cause of cluster headaches is not known. It is thought that there is abnormal activation of the area of the brain that is responsible for regulating temperature, blood pressure, hormone release, and sleep. The pain is thought to be caused by a combination of widening of the blood vessels and inflammation of the nerves of the face.
Other possible causes include:
Factors that increase your chance of getting cluster headaches include:
Symptoms of cluster headache include:
During the headache, other symptoms may occur on the affected side, including:
The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical and neurological exam will be done. A neurological exam may include examining:
The doctor will ask about the frequency and pattern of your headaches. To help provide answers, you may consider keeping a diary of:
Pictures may be taken of your brain to rule out other disorders. This can be done with:
Treatment aims to reduce the frequency of headaches and help relieve pain.
Drugs used to treat migraines often relieve sudden attacks of cluster headaches. These drugs must be taken at the first sign of a headache.
Drugs used to treat cluster headaches include:
In some cases, the headache does not last long enough for drugs to be helpful. Sometimes, the drugs just delay an attack, rather than stop an attack.
Pain killers, especially narcotic drugs, should not be used during an acute attack.
Other medicines may be given to prevent or reduce the frequency of headaches. Examples of these drugs include:
Breathing 100% oxygen for 10-15 minutes often relieves cluster headache pain. This is often viewed as the front-line therapy for cluster headache. The oxygen appears to decrease blood flow to the affected area of the brain. People under age 50 who have episodic cluster headaches seem to benefit most from oxygen therapy.
Oxygen therapy can be expensive, and there are risks with this therapy.
As a last resort, some doctors may recommend cutting or destroying a facial nerve to eliminate pain.
To prevent cluster headaches from getting worse, preventive medicine may be given. In addition:
American Headache Society Committee for Headache Education
National Headache Foundation
Headache Network Canada
Help for Headaches
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Last reviewed February 2013 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Last Updated: 2/21/2013
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