Cluster Headaches: Painful but Treatable and Preventable

November 17, 2016

Often called the suicide headache because of the excruciating intensity of the pain, cluster headaches are three times more likely to strike men than women.

“Patients tell me it feels like they’re being mutilated with an ice pick and is worse than anything they’ve ever felt,” said Juline Bryson, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center and a board-certified headache specialist.

“Because they are so rare, they are often misdiagnosed as migraines or allergies and aren’t treated appropriately.”

Cluster headaches are a series of relatively short but extremely painful headaches that occur in clusters, usually at the same time of the day and night for several weeks, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. They strike one side of the head, often behind or around one eye, and may be preceded by a migraine-like aura and nausea. The intense pain can continue for up to three hours and often wakes people from their sleep.

Symptoms include tears, runny nose or congestion, sweating and redness on one side of the face only, Bryson said. Unlike most headaches, cluster headaches tend to occur every day for a few weeks in a row and then go away. And they usually happen at the same time every year, usually spring or fall. 

“In most cases, this kind of headache is very treatable once it is correctly diagnosed,” Bryson said. “During an episode, we can inject a drug used to treat migraines, which can provide relief within minutes. And there are several drugs available that are quite effective in preventing these headaches.

“Although there are good treatments available, responses vary from person to person and some people do have intractable headaches that can be very difficult to treat.”

Bryson recommends that people with cluster headaches seek out a United Council for Neurologic Subspecialties–certified headache specialist for treatment.



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