More than 100 different types of headaches exist, but three top the list: tension-type headaches, migraine headaches, and cluster headaches. Perhaps the least well-known among the general public is the cluster headache. It’s rarer than the other types, but it still affects about 1 in 1,000 people; more males are affected than females, and the onset usually occurs 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 both violent and persistent, the team has put together some tips to help you manage your attacks.
Researchers still have much to learn about cluster headaches, including what causes them. We do know they’re a form of trigeminal autonomic cephalgia, involving the hypothalamus, a brain structure of the autonomic nervous system, in addition to the first branch of the trigeminal nerve.
Cluster headaches are aptly named. They occur in groups or clusters that can last for weeks or even months at a time. You may hear them referred to as “suicide headaches” because the pain is so severe, some people consider taking their lives. If you’re having an attack and feel suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255.
Cluster headaches start suddenly with severe pain behind one eye that may be searing, burning, or stabbing. Each individual headache in an attack generally lasts 30-45 minutes, and you may experience as many as eight of these headaches within a 24-hour period. They may go into remission suddenly, as well, sometimes for months or even years before another cluster begins.
The telltale signs of a cluster headache include:
- Searing pain behind one eye
- Multiple attacks in a single day
- Clusters of attacks that last for weeks, months, or years
- Pain always manifests in the same way
The starting time and length of each cluster period may be consistent from one series to the next. For example, they can occur seasonally, such as every spring or every fall.
Most people have episodic cluster headaches, where the pain lasts for one week to a year, followed by a remission period of three months or longer before another cluster develops. Some people, though, have chronic cluster headaches, where the pain continues for more than a year, and remissions last less than a month.
Cluster headaches are more common in those who smoke and frequently drink alcohol, and many also have sleep apnea, though the link is poorly understood.
Cluster headaches have no cure, but they can be treated with some of the same medications as migraine attacks (i.e., triptans, dihydroergotamine), as well as prednisone, which reduces inflammation and swelling, or verapamil, which relaxes blood vessels. Over-the-counter pain relievers are insufficient to even make a dent in the pain.
Tips for managing cluster headaches
While your doctor may give you a preventive medication to help forestall a cluster attack, or an abortive to help rescue you once you’re having an attack, there are things you can do to help manage your pain.
Try breathing exercises
One of the first-line treatments for cluster headaches is oxygen, which is known to reduce the severity of an attack. In the same vein, some people have found deep breathing exercises to be effective in managing symptoms. This approach also relieves stress, which can be a contributing factor to the pain.
Adopt a consistent sleep schedule
Findings in the Journal of Headache Pain show that keeping a consistent sleep schedule regularizes the body’s circadian rhythms, which may help reduce the incidence of attacks.
Get regular exercise
Exercise may well be a panacea for whatever ails you, and its benefits, either directly or indirectly, include relieving cluster headaches. Even moderate daily activity has been shown to improve sleep, boost blood circulation to the brain, and reduce stress.
Yoga combines effective breathing techniques with stretching, and it’s been linked with reducing cluster headaches. Typically, you should aim for five sessions a week of about 60 minutes each, though if you’re just beginning, you may want to start smaller and scale up as you become more proficient.
Tobacco has been linked with any number of severe health problems, including, as we’ve mentioned, chronic cluster headaches. If you smoke, vape, or chew, look into a smoking cessation program to reap the benefits of being tobacco-free.
Any form of alcohol can trigger a cluster attack. Abstaining, especially while in the throes of an attack, can help lessen the pain.
If you’re living with cluster headaches and want relief, it’s time to come into Memphis Neurology for an evaluation with one of our neurologists and a treatment plan to keep you as pain-free as possible. To get started, give us a call at either of our locations, or book your appointment online today.