Cluster headache is the most dramatically painful of all known headache types. They are also known as suicide headaches due to the high rate of suicide among sufferers. If you, or some one you love is affected by clusters, your know first hand how this painful affliction is debilitating and life altering.
What is a Cluster Headache?
A cluster headache is characterised by pain exclusively on one side of the head, behind and around the eye socket and at the temple. It is described by sufferers as feeling like a red hot poker jabbing through the eye with immense force.
It lasts an average of 45 to 90 minutes, but can be as short as 20 minutes or as long as 3 hours. Patients will often be sleeping and awakened 90 minutes or so into their sleep cycle by the pain. It occurs in clusters, 1 to 3 times a day on average, but can be as many as 10 separate headaches in a 24 hour period.
In 90% of patients, episodic cluster headaches will occur for around 6 weeks with a daily cycle of headaches and can then disappear completely for a year, two years or more.
For the remaining 10%, chronic cluster headaches can continue for years, several times per week.
Who Suffers From Cluster Headache?
The typical sufferers are men in their 30's. It affects only .1% of the population. A family history of clusters is uncommon, but a history of other less severe headache will likely may be present.
Migraine headache, by contrast, affects 1 in 5 women and affects women 3 times more often than men.
Cluster headache is far more severe than migraine. A migraine sufferer will typically seek out a dark room to lay down and rest. A cluster sufferer cannot sit still, may pace, and rock and drive their fist into their the painful eye. Some patients will bang their head into a wall.
Is There a Cure?
There is no real cure for cluster headache. There are many treatments, both for preventative measures and pain management. Treatment may work well for some patients for years and then become ineffective. Some patients have difficulty finding a treatment plan that manages their pain enough for them to continue working and living in a relatively normal manner.
Treatment Options: (This is a partial list)
Oxygen: Many doctors use this as the first defense against cluster headaches. The patient will keep an oxygen tankin their home and will breathe pure oxygen for 20 minutes. For some patients this will bring immediate relief.
Triptans: The patient injects themselves with sumatriptan. This generally stops the pain within 10 minutes. A nasal spray can also be used but the pain relief is slightly slower. The safe dose for either the spray or shot is 2 per day.
This treatment leaves a patient who typically suffers with more than two headaches per day with a problem. Feel the pain? Or take the risk of doing additional harm by taking more than recommended? Taking too much sumatriptan can cause serious heart problems.
Surgical Treatmentt: Surgical treatments are considered a last resort when a patient does not respond to any other treatment because of the high risks involved. Surgery for cluster headache is highly invasive and risky and the results are not yet proven more than 50% positive.
Possible Alternative Treatments:
Some cluster headache patients have found alternative therapies to help with pain management, and reduce the duration of a cycle of cluster headaches. The results will vary. Be certain to find a liscensed practitioner, preferably with some knowledge of cluster headache.
- Relaxation Techniques
- Massage Therapy / Trigger Point Massage
- Cranial Sacral Therapy
Knowing the Pain is Coming
Support for Cluster Headache Patients and Families
Support is essential for anyone suffering from cluster headaches. Their lives are affected profoundly and daily by unbearable pain. To understand, watch the video on the right. If someone you love has clusters, understand their struggle. Do what you can to help them get through each cycle. Help them to manage the details of the rest of their life during a headache cycle. Be familiar with the danger signs of depression, because it often accompanies chronic pain. Know when to seek professional help. Find a support group for patients and / or for families dealing with this incredibly unique and painful situation.
It is important for family and friends to understand that cluster headaches are not migraines. Cluster headaches are unlike even the worst migraine or the constant pain of New Daily Persistent Headache. If someone you know is suffering, please try to be patient and supportive of them.