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 2 main types of cluster headaches:
Either type of headache may switch 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:
Men aged 20-50 years are more likely to get cluster headaches. Other factors that may increase your chance of cluster headaches include:
Cluster headaches may cause:
During the headache, other symptoms may occur on the affected side, including:
Symptoms of a Cluster Headache
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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:
Imaging tests to evaluate the brain include:
Treatment aims to reduce the frequency of headaches and relieving pain.
Medications used to treat migraines often relieve sudden attacks of cluster headaches. These drugs must be taken at the first sign of a headache. Other medications may also be prescribed.
In some cases, the headache does not last long enough for medications to be helpful. Sometimes, the medications just delay an attack, rather than stop an attack.
Painkillers, especially opioids, may not be effective during an acute attack.
Other medications may be given to prevent or reduce the frequency of headaches.
Breathing 100% oxygen for 10-15 minutes often relieves cluster headache pain. This is often viewed as the first-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. There are also risks with this therapy.
As a last resort, some doctors may recommend cutting or destroying a facial nerve to eliminate pain.
To help reduce your chance of cluster headaches:
American Headache Society
National Headache Foundation
Help for Headaches
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Last reviewed November 2018 by
EBSCO Medical Review Board
Rimas Lukas, MD
Last Updated: 11/16/2015