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What Are The Symptoms and Causes of Cluster Headaches?

Cluster headaches are very severe headaches, more so even than migraines. Healthcare providers consider both types of headaches primary headaches, rather than secondary headaches. The difference:

  • Primary headaches: Start because of a response from the part of the brain that communicates pain. A primary headache is its own health challenge, not part of a larger issue.
  • Secondary headaches: Start because of another health condition. Several things can cause these headaches, including ear infections, nasal congestion and dehydration.

Who gets cluster headaches?

Cluster headaches affect 1 out of every 1,000 people. That makes them less common than migraines, though some people get both types of headaches.

Symptoms of cluster headaches usually start showing up between the ages of 20 and 40. Researchers once thought these headaches affected men more often. They now believe they affect men and women equally.

Cluster headaches are also more common in people who smoke and frequently drink alcohol. Many people who get cluster headaches also have sleep apnea.

Are there warning signs for cluster headaches?

You may experience slight discomfort or a burning feeling on one side of your head just before a cluster headache. But cluster headaches often come on fast, so these signs don’t leave much time to prepare.

How are cluster headaches treated?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for cluster headaches. But you do have treatment options that can make them a little less painful. Treatment options include:

  • Abortive treatment to stop attacks: Often, a headache will stop before you have a chance to see a healthcare provider. But if you get there in time, there are several effective ways to stop a cluster headache. A healthcare provider may give you injected medications or a nasal spray. These include sumatriptan, dihydroergotamine & zolmitriptan. The provider may also give you oxygen through a mask.
  • Medications to improve quality of life: Prescription medications can shorten a headache cycle. They can also make the headaches less severe. Calcium channel blockers, verapamil, lithium carbonate, divalproex sodium, melatonin or topiramate may help. There is a new preventive therapy that is a calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) monoclonal antibody.
  • Other options when needed: Surgeons have tried operations for cluster headaches. But they haven’t had much success preventing them. Researchers are now testing newer therapies to see if they can work. One option uses mild electrical stimulation on the neck. Another creates electrical stimulation by placing a medical device through the upper gums.

What can I do to prevent cluster headaches?

The best way to prevent cluster headaches is to avoid triggers such as drinking and smoking. Also, if you suspect you have sleep apnea, get it treated. The sleep condition appears tied to cluster headaches in some way.

What can I expect if a doctor says I have cluster headaches?

Your healthcare provider will work with you to find a treatment. Your treatment plan may include medications and other therapies. Make sure to follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations for the most effective relief.

When should I see a doctor for a cluster headache?

If you suspect you have cluster headaches, reach out to a neurologist or headache specialist to confirm the diagnosis and to exclude other causes that may mimic headache. You do not have to be in the midst of a cluster to be seen by a specialist to be diagnosed. Everyone gets headaches from time to time, for various reasons. But cluster headaches are no ordinary headaches. If you experience severe headaches in a pattern, talk to your healthcare provider. You could have cluster headaches and can get treatment for this painful condition.

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