Cluster Headaches: Analyzing the Facts
Cluster headaches are the most painful type of primary headache a person can experience. This kind of headache is also very rare as it affects less than one person in every 1,000 people. It is often called the “suicide headache” because there have been documented cases of people who have actually taken their own lives when the pain becomes too unbearable or when anticipating another terrible episode. Despite the notoriety of this type of headache, proper diagnosis and treatment can help make this condition manageable.
What are Cluster Headaches?
Cluster headaches are characterized as a chronic headache that recurs repeatedly during a period of time called clusters. A person experiencing this headache often feels excruciating pain on one side of the head, often behind one eye. This happens when the main facial nerve called the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for feeling sensations like pain, is activated. The activation of this nerve causes severe pain and stimulates other nerves in the face that trigger the other symptoms commonly associated with this type of headache. Cluster headaches are a condition in itself, meaning there are no underlying conditions, brain tumors or aneurysm that can cause these attacks. The real cause of the trigeminal nerve activation is still unknown, but studies have shown that this has something to do with the part of the brain that regulates our sleeping habits called the hypothalamus.
The symptoms of this headache attack are often similar with very little variation from one attack to the other, making it easy to tell it apart from other types of headaches. The most common symptoms of this type of headache are:
- Pain. One-sided pain throughout the duration of the attack is felt. It is also unusual for the pain to move to the other side during a different attack. The pain a person suffers during an attack is often severe and very intense. It is often described as a constant piercing or burning pain behind one eye or in the region surrounding it. The pain usually lasts for as short as 15 minutes or as long as three hours. The attacks can happen more than once in a day, with the patient feeling nothing in between attacks.
- Swollen Eyes. The eye affected by the headaches may appear swollen or droopy. The eye’s pupil may appear smaller and the inner part of the eyelid may turn red.
- Nasal Congestion and Discharge. It is common for people with this type of headache to have one of their nasal passageways congested. The eye on the affected side can also become watery due to the congestion.
- Flushing. The affected side of the face can appear flushed when compared to the other side of the face. Before the onset of the headache, a person also feels a slight discomfort on the affected side.
- Sensitivity. A person experiencing an attack may be sensitive to light. Another possible symptom is excessive sweating before or during the attack.
People who suffer from cluster headaches have treatment options to choose from. They can talk to their doctors about preventive treatments that may help lessen the occurrence of headache attacks or treatments that can help them manage the pain once the attacks happen.
Abortive treatments help relieve the pain when a person is already having an attack. Doctors often prescribe pain medication such as injections of sumatriptan. Alternative drugs that help with the pain are intranasal lidocaine and ergotamine drugs. Using a face mask to breathe in oxygen for twenty minutes can also help with the pain. On the other hand, preventive treatments shorten the headache’s duration and severity. While there are no treatments available to prevent attacks from happening ever again, patients with this condition are encouraged to take preventive medication such as divalproex sodium, verapamil, ergotamine tartrate, lithium, and prednisone (in short courses only) to help them manage the pain. Those experiencing extreme chronic pain also have the option to have surgery to block the trigeminal nerve. This procedure is recommended to people that do not respond to traditional treatment and medication.
While the condition itself is not life threatening, the pain a person feels when experiencing attacks may prevent them from performing routine activities properly, or in worse cases, may resort to hurting themselves. This is why people who experience the symptoms of cluster headaches must see a doctor and get medical attention immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment.