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 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 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. There are also risks with this therapy.
As a last resort, some doctors may recommend cutting or destroying a facial nerve to eliminate pain.
Sometimes, cluster headaches can be prevented by doing the following:
American Headache Society
National Headache Foundation
Headache Network Canada
Help for Headaches
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10/25/2010 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed: Francis GJ, Becker WJ, et al. Acute and preventive pharmacologic treatment of cluster headache. Neurology. 2010;75(5):463-473.
Last reviewed December 2014 by Rimas Lukas, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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