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Cluster Headache

The symptoms of a cluster headache include stabbing severe pain behind or above one eye or in the temple. Tearing of the eye, congestion in the associated nostril, and pupil changes and eyelid drooping may also occur.

The pain of a cluster headache commences quickly, without warning, and reaches a crescendo within 2 to 15 minutes.  It is often excruciating in intensity, and is deep, nonfluctuating, and explosive in quality; only occasionally is it pulsatile.    In addition, 10 to 20 percent of patients report superimposed paroxysms of stabbing, icepick-like pains in the periorbital region that last for a few seconds and may occur once or several times in rapid succession; this paroxysmal pain usually heralds the end of an attack.  The symptoms resolve in 1 to 2 minutes.

The pain usually begins in, around, or above the eye or the temple   occasionally the face, neck, ear, or hemicranium may be affected (Sutherland and Eadie, 1972).  It is always unilateral, and generally affects the same side in subsequent bouts.  However, it may shift to the corresponding region of the opposite side in 15 percent of patients (Manzoni et al, 1983b), usually for the duration of a bout, less often switching sides within a bout.  Many patients prefer to be upright and active when an attack is in progress, but this is reported with a frequency that is not high enough to be useful diagnostically.

Description of Cluster Headach

Cluster headaches have been known as histamine headaches, red migraines, and Horton's disease, among others. The constant factor is the pain, which transcends by far the distress of the more common tension-type headache or even that of a migraine headache.

Cluster headaches afflict less than 0.5% of the population and predominantly affect men; approximately 80% of sufferers are male. Onset typically occurs in the late 20s, but there is no absolute age restriction. Approximately 80% of cluster headaches are classified as episodic; the remaining 20% are considered chronic. Both display the same symptoms. However, episodic cluster headaches occur during 1- to 5-month periods followed by 6- to 24-month attack-free, or remission, periods. There is no such reprieve for chronic cluster headache sufferers.

Causes & symptoms of Cluster Headache

Biochemical, hormonal, and vascular changes induce cluster headaches, but why these changes occur remains unclear. Episodic cluster headaches seem to be linked to changes in day length, possibly signaling a connection to the so-called biological clock. Alcohol, tobacco, histamine, or stress can trigger cluster headaches. Decreased blood oxygen levels (hypoxemia) can also act as a trigger, particularly during the night when an individual is sleeping. Interestingly, the triggers do not cause cluster headaches during remission periods.

The primary cluster headache symptom is excruciating one-sided head pain centered behind an eye or near the temple. This pain may radiate outward from the initial focus and encompass the mouth and teeth. For this reason, some cluster headache sufferers may mistakenly attribute their pain to a dental problem. Secondary symptoms, occurring on the same side as the pain, include eye tearing, nasal congestion followed by a runny nose, pupil contraction, and facial drooping or flushing.

Diagnosis of Cluster Headache

Cluster headache symptoms guide the diagnosis. A medical examination includes recording headache details, such as frequency and duration, when it occurs, pain intensity and location, possible triggers, and any prior symptoms. This history allows other potential problems to be discounted.

Treatment of Cluster Headache

Treatment for cluster headaches is composed of induction, maintenance, and symptomatic therapies. The first two therapies are prophylactic treatments, geared toward preventing headaches. Symptomatic therapy is meant to stop or shorten a headache.

Induction and maintenance therapies begin together. Induction therapy is intended to break the headache cycle with drugs such as corticosteroids (for example, prednisone) or dihydroergotamine. These drugs are not meant for long-term therapy, but rather as a jump-start formaintenance therapy. Maintenance therapy drugs include verapamil, lithium carbonate, ergotamine, and methysergide. These drugs have long-term effectiveness, but must be taken for at least a week before a response is observed. With long-tern treatment, methysergide must be stopped for one month each year to avoid dangerous side effects (formation of fibrous tissue inside the abdominal artery, lungs, and heart valves).

Despite prophylactic treatment, headaches may still occur. Symptomatic therapy includes oxygen inhalation, sumatriptan injection, and application of local anesthetics inside the nose. Surgery is a last resort for chronic cluster headaches that fail to respond to therapy.

Alternative treatment of Cluster Headache

Since some cluster headaches are triggered by stress, stress reduction techniques, such as yoga, meditation, and regular exercise, may be effective. Some cluster headaches may be an allergic response triggered by food or environmental substances, therefore identifying and removing the allergen(s) may be key to resolution of the problem. Histamine is another suspected trigger of cluster headaches, and this response may be controlled with vitamin C and the bioflavonoids quercetin and bromelain (pineapple enzyme). Supplementation with essential fatty acids (EFA) will help decrease any inflammatory response.

Physical medicine therapies such as adjustments of the spine, craniosacral treatment, and massage at the temporomandibular joint (TMJ) can clear blockages, as can traditional Chinese medical therapies including acupuncture. Homeopathic treatment can also be beneficial. Nervous system relaxant herbs, used singly or in combination, can allow the central nervous system to relax as well as assist in peripheral nerve response. A few herbs to consider for relaxation are valerian (Valeriana officinalis), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis), and skullcap (Scutellaria baicalensis).


This web site is intended for your own informational purposes only. No person or entity associated with this web site purports to be engaging in the practice of medicine through this medium. The information you receive is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a physician or other health care professional. If you have an illness or medical problem, contact your health care provider.


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