Cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are the most painful headache. They occur more frequently in men and as the name suggests occur in clusters, during which they may occur daily for 4-8 weeks. They usually occur at night and start 1-2 hours after falling asleep. They may last from minutes to hours, but the average time is 30-45 minutes. Sufferers often report a regularity to attacks, with the Spring and Autumn being the commonest time for attacks.

The pain is one-sided and felt behind the eye. The pain is very severe, often described as the most excruciating pain ever experienced. The eye and nose on the affected side usually become red, swollen and water. People describe doing anything to relieve the pain, from banging their head against a wall, to standing under a cold shower.

During a cluster, it is important to stick to a routine and to cut down on stress, Alcohol is the only known trigger and should be avoided during a bout. Regular sleep patterns should be observed. Cluster headaches are more common in smokers.

The best treatments have to work very quickly, as the headaches come on so rapidly. Self injecting treatments of the triptan group of drugs are available as well as nasal sprays. Pain killing drugs can be given by suppository.

Preventive treatment during a cluster can be helpful with drugs such as verapamil, lithium and sodium valproate. One of the best treatments during an attack is the administration of oxygen by mask during an attack.

Further information

Organisation For The Understanding Of Cluster Headaches In The UK

This article published on
25 November 2005

Next review date 11/1/2013


Head stuff
First aid

Areaof the body

Eyes, ears, nose, throat

Male or female?


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