Cluster Headaches

Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are often ranked with the most painful conditions people ever have to endure. They are termed “cluster” headaches because they come in groups. Victims often suffer through one or more a day for a period of a week to eight weeks. The headaches then recede only to reappear again many months later.

Sometimes, they appear every spring or every fall, which has led some to believe they are allergy-related. However, the exact triggers for cluster headaches are unknown and the profile of cluster headache sufferers can be quite different.

These parameters, however, can help define and/or diagnose cluster headaches:

  • While the initial onset of cluster headaches can occur at any age, they are prone to appearing first in late teenage years.
  • Cluster headaches can occur throughout a lifetime, but a typical case includes “aging out” of cluster headaches. They often fade away for good when the sufferer is in his or her forties or fifties.
  • Men are more likely to be afflicted than women
  • Smoking is implicated as a contributing factor, but quitting smoking does not prevent them from continuing to occur
  • Alcohol is not seen as a specific trigger but is viewed as something that can increase the pain of a cluster headache


The symptoms of cluster headaches are pronounced and the pain can be excruciating. Typically, the profile of symptoms includes several or all of the following:

  • Extreme pain concentrated on one side of the head
  • Hyper-sensitivity to light, smell, and sounds
  • Runny nose
  • Watery and drooping eye on the afflicted side
  • Agitation (in the form of not being able to lie still)
  • Pale skin
  • Sweating
  • Nausea

Medications And Treatment

Persons suffering from severe headaches should see a family physician, a pain management clinic or a neurologist as soon as possible. It is likely that the combined assistance of all three would be useful.


There are various medications used to treat cluster headaches, but none of them constitutes a cure for this painful condition.

  • Triptans: The injectable form (brand name Imitrex) is frequently prescribed. It can also be delivered by a nasal spray (brand name Zomig)
  • Dihydroergotamine is used as a pain reliever, also administered by injection
  • 100 percent oxygen can provide some relief for some patients. It often provides pain relief within 15 minutes
  • Octreotide (Sandostatin) is another medication delivered by injection that has provided relief for some cluster headache sufferers
  • Neuromodulation is a process in which high-frequency pulses (10 kHz) are delivered to nerve endings, which disrupts the pain signals going to the brain. This could be effective in some cases.

Patients should discuss with their physician which treatment would be right for them. No one should have to suffer from the intense pain of a cluster headache. In San Diego, call Pacific Medical Care at 619-333-8114 to consult with a physician if you suffer from this painful condition.

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