What Is A Cluster Headache?

What Is A Cluster Headache?
What Is A Cluster Headache?

What is a cluster headache? Cluster headaches, which are also sometimes referred to a cluster migraines, are happily a fairly rare form of a headache which tens to affect men more than it does women.

A cluster headache comes on very suddenly, and attacks can last from just a few minutes to many hours, but usually last anywhere from about 45 to 90 minutes. These particular headaches are known as cluster headaches because, once attacks start, they normally occur at the same time every day for weeks or even months, followed by a period when you are a headache free before the attacks start again. Typically, patients will experience a cluster for about 4 to 8 weeks.

One characteristic of cluster headaches is that they often appear in the early hours of the morning between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. or the early afternoon between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. They are also often seen during the evening at around 9 p.m. This tendency for attacks to appear with such regularity has also lead to the use of the term 'alarm clock headaches' and leads some health professionals to believe that the body's circadian rhythm (biological clock) plays a part in these attacks.

The symptoms of a cluster headache often include intense pain around or behind one eye, which can also extend to the neck and shoulders. This eyelid will often droop, and the eye will become red and watery. The nose may also swell and become runny. Less commonly, your entire face may become red and swollen, and you may begin sweating. Sufferers also often become very restless and start pacing around and, odd though it may seem, many patients report that the pain is so intense that they will literally bang their head against the wall of on the furniture as if to 'kill' it.

Cluster headaches are classed as being either episodic or chronic. Episodic cluster headaches occur one or more times each day for several weeks and sufferers are then headache-free for several weeks, months or even years. Where however attacks continue for more than one year without a break of at least a month then the condition is considered to be chronic. About 10 to 15 percent of sufferers experience chronic cluster headaches.

As with migraine headaches, we do not know what causes cluster headaches although there does seem to be some genetic component to the condition. Attacks can also sometimes be triggered by nitroglycerin (used in the treatment of some heart conditions), alcohol and exposure to some hydrocarbons such as petroleum solvents and perfume. Some doctors also believe that diet plays a role and that certain foods can trigger an attack, but this is highly debated and is certainly not clearly established at the moment.

When it comes to treatment for cluster headaches the approach is very similar to that used for migraine headache treatment and comprises a range of medical drug treatments to deal with attacks when they arise (abortive treatment) and a further range of drugs used to help prevent the condition (prophylactic treatment). The major difference when it comes to treatment lies in the fact that, because cluster headaches arise very quickly and usually without any warning, treatment needs to be faster than would be achieved using normal tablet medication and so medicines need to delivered quickly by injection or, if the attack allows, using a nasal inhaler.

As far as self-help cluster headache treatment is concerned, it has been noted that about 4 out of 10 patients benefit from taking magnesium supplements and many have also reported that melatonin can reduce the severity of attacks.

[Note: Cluster headaches have been studied for many years and, as a result, have been given various names over the years. These include ciliary neuralgia, migrainous neuralgia, erythromelalgia of the head, erythroprosopalgia of Bing, Horton's headaches, histamine cephalalgia, sphenopalatine neuralgia, Petal neuralgia, Vidian neuralgia, Sluder's neuralgia and hemicrania Angi paralytic IA.]

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