Cluster headaches may be the least common type of headache – tension headaches and migraines beat it to the punch – with a prevalence of less than 1 in 1,000 persons but it is just a pain in the neck, so to speak.
In medical circles, cluster headaches refer to headaches that recur over a period wherein the pain occurs 1 to 3 times in a day for anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months. Persons with cluster headaches suffer from the symptoms at the same time each year (i.e., just in autumn or in spring) although these may completely disappear for months, even years, at a time.
But don’t dismiss cluster headaches for being the least common type either. The pain associated with these headaches are so severe that the affected person can awaken from sleep 1-2 hours after bedtime, a pain described by sufferers and specialists as more intense than migraine attacks. Think of it this way: The least common yet the most severe pain in many cases with women more likely to be afflicted than men.
The pain may also be more severe during the nightime than during the daytime. Scientists theorize that this is so because cluster headaches are linked to the circadian rhythm.
Scientists have yet to determine the exact causes of cluster headaches but there are clues. For one thing, these do not appear to be caused by underlying brain conditions like aneurysm and tumours.
For another thing, these occur when the trigeminal-autonomic reflex pathway located in the base of the brain is activated; the nerve pathway controls sensations like pain or heat. When it is activated, the eye pain (i.e., tearing and redness) as well as discharge and nasal congestion associated with cluster headaches are triggered.
The hypothalamus also appears to play a crucial role in cluster headaches. It must be noted that the hypothalamus controls the internal biological clock, which regulates the 24-hour sleep and wake cycles. In recent imaging studies, it is stimulated or activated during a cluster headache attack.
The changing of the season is the most common trigger usually either in spring or in autumn. High-risk persons include those who have excessive smoking and drinking habits so much so that, during a cluster period, even the smallest exposure to cigarettes or alcohol can trigger the severe pain.
In general, cluster headaches reach their peak of pain within 5-10 minutes after their onset. The pain can be described in the following terms:
If you suspect you have cluster headaches, call your doctor for an appointment so that a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan can be made.