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Expert advice on advanced diagnosis and treatment of painful headaches and migraines from the leading headache clinic in New Jersey.

Cluster Headaches

Gabriel Santos - Thursday, November 14, 2013

Flustered By Cluster Headaches?

A cluster headache is among the most debilitating kind of headache and tends to leave the sufferer in a state of acute agitation. It is called a cluster headache because it occurs repeatedly in a brief period of time. The headache is always one-sided and affects the eyes and temples on that side of the head. Cluster headaches may last anywhere between 4 to 12 weeks and the pain can strike once every two days or in extreme situations even eight times in a single day. The pain could last for 15-20 minutes, but it usually stays on for about 45-50 minutes.

What Causes a Cluster Headache?

Like most headaches, the exact reason for cluster headache is unknown. The pain is acute and more severe than a migraine. The condition is thankfully, not too common and affects only 1 in 1000 people. It tends to affect men (by about five to six times) more than women and generally triggers in people who are regular smokers.

Research suggests that a part of the brain called hypothalamus becomes overactive during each attack. What causes this over-activity is not known but the hypothalamus is said to release chemicals that stimulate nerve cells in the brain to cause the pain.

In most cases, cluster headaches occur for no specific reason and have the same trigger as other headaches. Alcohol, strong smells and overheated surroundings can cause a cluster headache.

Studies show that migraine attacks related to weather are more common in the summer than in the winter. Often individuals prone to such headaches go through the entire winter without experiencing a single migraine attack. But come summer and strong sunshine and many afflicted with regular migraines will start to feel the onset of more frequent, painful headaches. What follows are common symptoms like throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, eye and nerve strain.

Treating Cluster Headaches

Usually the pain during cluster headaches is so severe that the sufferer cannot stay still in one place and keeps moving about or takes a walk. Many are even known to bang their head against the wall. The agonizing pain naturally makes the person wonder if he or she could be suffering from something more serious like a tumor. Rest assured, this happens only in a very small minority.

Treating a cluster headache is a challenge due to the sheer severity of pain it causes. This makes regular, over-the-counter headache medicines quite ineffective and usually these take very long to work, if they work at all. There are other, more effective treatments that can reduce the intensity of a cluster headache. These are:

  • Sumatriptan injection: Sumatriptan is classified under triptan medicine that is used to treat cluster headaches. It is given by injection and is the most commonly used treatment to stop a severe headache. The injection has to be taken as soon as the pain starts and in 4 out of 5 cases, it relieves the headache in 15 minutes. The medicine interferes with a brain chemical called 5HT which contributes to migraines and headaches.
  • Zolmitriptan nasal spray: This is also a Triptan medicine and is an alternative to Sumatriptan injection. It is effective but is possibly a little slower to work.
  • 100 percent oxygen therapy: This is an alternative when Zolmitriptan and Sumatriptan cannot be used or do not work. It relieves pain in 15 minutes but it does not work for everybody. However, when it does, it can be used as many times as necessary. The only condition is that the oxygen has to be 100 percent so it needs to be delivered through a mask from an oxygen cylinder.
  • Preventive treatments: Your doctor can prescribe preventive medicines like Verapamil and Lithium that are known to effectively treat cluster headaches. 
All these medications come with their share of side effects and should not be used under certain health conditions. General Practitioners do not usually treat cluster headaches, as these cases come to them rarely. Hence, specialized care is your best bet.

The New Jersey Headache Institute with its advanced research backing and expert team of doctors offers treatment for all types of headaches. Our aim is to help you get long-term relief through careful diagnosis and appropriate treatment. 

Call us at 908.315.5707 and put an end to the vicious cycle of cluster headaches or use our contact form to book a consultation.

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