What is a Cluster Headache and How to Treat It

Ever experienced a rapid fire of successive headaches?  Seasonal succession of headaches perhaps?  If yes, then they would be called cluster headaches.  These are nasty “clusters” of headaches with several definitive characteristics.  Luckily, they can be treated!


Cluster headaches are known for being patterned and extremely painful.  They disrupt the sleep cycle by causing immense pain that wakes the person suffering from them.  Attacks are said to be linked to the natural sleep-wake cycle called Circadian Rhythms.  Pain is usually located around an eye or a particular side of the head.  Cluster headaches are more intense in pain than even migraines, but last nowhere near as long.


A “Cluster Period,” is defined as a series of attacks lasting several weeks or months, commonly associated with seasonal changes.  Remission occurs afterwards where headaches subside for weeks, months, even years.


These are extremely rare headaches, “affecting less than one in 1,000 people.”  The exact cause of these types of headaches is unknown.  A possible explanation is the activation of the trigeminal nerve that causes the eye pain, tearing, redness, nasal congestion and discharge associated with cluster headaches.


Other symptoms include:


  • Drooping Eyelid
  • Stuffy Nose
  • Swelling around the affected eye(s)


As for treatment, there a few different options.  A cluster headache cannot be cured.  It can only be relieved or prevented.  Fast-acting treatments may be utilized to get rid of pain being that cluster headaches are short in duration.  Doctors can prescribe the following as treatments.


  • Oxygen- inexpensive, fast-acting, impractical
  • Injectable medications such as Triptans and Octreotide- very effective
  • Dihydroergotamine injections (DHE)- produce results in 5 minutes but can be very dangerous


Prevention is key to avoiding cluster headaches.  If you do not participate in the activities that elicit these cluster headaches, then you will not suffer from them.  Common causes are smoking, alcohol consumption, and certain foods.  “Blood pressure medicines….Dihydroergotamine, drugs used to treat seizures, Lithium carbonate, and medicines used to treat depression,” according to a NY Times article, are good preventative medications and treatment as well.


For a more permanent solution to these headaches, a newer, but not fully tested, treatment has been created.  Called a neurostimulator, this device issues small electrical impulses to particular neurons in the brain.

Cluster headaches are unpleasant, but luckily treatable.  The trick is to be prepared for an attack, as best as one can be prepared!