If you’ve seen one headache … you haven’t seen them all. There are over 100 different types of headaches, but the three most common are tension-type headaches, migraine headaches, and cluster headaches. Of these, perhaps the least known is the cluster headache; while it may be more rare than the other types, it still affects about 1 in 1,000 individuals, with the onset usually between 20-40 years old.
The board-certified neurologists at Memphis Neurology specialize in diagnosing and treating all types of headache disorders, including cluster headaches. Because clusters are less understood than tension-type or migraine headaches, the team would like to pass on the four telltale signs, so you’ll know when to seek medical help.
Tension-type and migraine headaches
To understand the unique symptoms of a cluster headache, it’s important to know how they differ from the other two predominant headache types.
Tension headaches are the most common form of headache disorder. It’s believed that stress and muscle tension in the neck play a role, as do genetics and environmental factors. Moderate pain develops on both sides of the head, as well as in the back of the head and neck. Some people describe the pain as being like a “vice” or a band around the head. Tension headaches build slowly, are not affected by movement, and aren’t associated with nausea or vomiting.
Tension headaches respond to over-the-counter pain relievers if you get them only occasionally, but if they’re chronic, you may need prescription medication. Your doctor may also recommend you get plenty of restful sleep, regular exercise, and practice relaxation techniques like massage or yoga.
Migraine is a neurological condition that presents with intense, one-sided, throbbing headaches that may also be accompanied by neurological symptoms such as light, sound, and odor sensitivity; nausea or vomiting; excessive yawning; and visual/speech disturbances. An attack comes in three or four discrete stages, only one of which is pain, and the pain is made worse by any type of movement. The pain phase can last from 4-72 hours.
Migraine may be episodic or chronic, and 75% of those living with the condition, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, are women.
Migraine treatment depends on frequency and severity, but the attacks rarely respond to OTC medications. Your doctor may prescribe a preventive medication to reduce the frequency and duration of attacks, as well as an abortive medication, which you take when you start to experience an attack.
Researchers still don’t know a great deal about cluster headaches, including what causes them. We do know a cluster headache is a form of trigeminal autonomic cephalgia. It involves the hypothalamus, a brain structure of the autonomic nervous system, as well as the first branch of the trigeminal nerve.
Cluster headaches get their name from the symptoms. They come in groups or clusters that can last for weeks or months. They’re sometimes called “suicide headaches” because the pain is so severe, some people consider taking their lives. If you feel suicidal from an attack, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255.
Cluster headaches present with sudden-onset severe pain behind one eye that is searing, burning, or stabbing. Each discreet headache in an attack generally lasts 30-45 minutes, and you can experience up to eight of these headaches within a 24-hour period. They may also just as suddenly go into remission for months or even years before another cluster occurs.
Four telltale signs of a cluster headache include:
- Searing pain behind one eye
- Multiple attacks within a single day
- Clusters of attacks that last for weeks, months, or years
- Pain always presents in the same way
Cluster headaches are also more common in those who smoke and frequently drink alcohol, and many also have sleep apnea.
There’s no cure for cluster headaches, but they can be treated with some of the same medications as migraine, as well as verapamil, which relaxes blood vessels, or prednisone, which reduces inflammation and swelling.
If you’re experiencing any of the telltale signs of a cluster headache, you need to come into Memphis Neurology for an evaluation, diagnosis, and appropriate treatment. Give us a call at either of our locations, or book online with us today.