Medical Encyclopedia


Medical Encyclopedia

Other encyclopedia topics:  A-Ag  Ah-Ap  Aq-Az  B-Bk  Bl-Bz  C-Cg  Ch-Co  Cp-Cz  D-Di  Dj-Dz  E-Ep  Eq-Ez  F  G  H-Hf  Hg-Hz  I-In  Io-Iz  J  K  L-Ln  Lo-Lz  M-Mf  Mg-Mz  N  O  P-Pl  Pm-Pz  Q  R  S-Sh  Si-Sp  Sq-Sz  T-Tn  To-Tz  U  V  W  X  Y  Z  0-9 

Cluster headache

Contents of this page:


Cause of headaches
Cause of headaches
Pain of cluster headache
Pain of cluster headache

Alternative Names    Return to top

Histamine headache; Headache - histamine; Migrainous neuralgia; Headache - cluster

Definition    Return to top

A cluster headache is one-sided head pain that may involve tearing of the eyes and a stuffy nose. The headaches occur repeatedly every day at the same time for several weeks and then go away.

See also:

Causes    Return to top

Cluster headaches are a fairly common form of chronic, repeated headaches. They are more common in men than women. The headaches can occur at any age but are most common in adolescence and middle age.

Scientists do not know exactly what causes cluster headaches, but they appear to be related to the body's sudden release of histamine or serotonin. Family history does not appear to play a role.

Some people who have cluster headaches are heavy smokers. Alcohol use may trigger attacks. Bright light (glare), stress, or certain foods may trigger an attack.

Symptoms    Return to top

A cluster headache begins as a severe, sudden headache. The headache most commonly strikes 2 to 3 hours after falling asleep, usually during the dreaming (rapid eye movement, or REM) phase.

The pain occurs on one side of the head. It may be described as:

The pain may occur in and around one eye. It may:

The strongest pain may last 30 minutes to 2 hours.

The eye and nose on the same side of the head pain may also be affected. Symptoms can include:

Cluster headaches may occur daily for months, alternating with periods without headaches (episodic), or they can recur for a year or more without stopping (chronic).

Exams and Tests    Return to top

Your health care provider can diagnosis this type of headache by performing a physical exam and asking questions about your symptoms and medical history.

If a physical exam is done during an attack, the exam will reveal Horner syndrome (one-sided eyelid drooping or a small pupil). These symptoms will not be present at other times. No other neurological changes will be seen.

Tests, such as an MRI of the head, may be needed to rule out other causes for the headaches.

Treatment    Return to top

Treatment does not cure cluster headaches. The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms. The headaches may go away on their own, or you may need treatment to prevent them.

Smoking, alcohol use, specific foods, and other factors that seem to trigger cluster headaches should be avoided. A headache diary can help you identify your headache triggers. When you get a headache, write down the day and time the pain began. The diary should include notes about what you ate and drank in the last 24 hours, how much you slept and when, and what was going on in your life immediately before the pain started. For example, were you under any unusual stress? Also include information about how long the headache lasted, and what made it stop.

Treatment for cluster headaches involves:

Your doctor may recommend the following treatments for when the headaches occurs:

A combination of medicines may be needed to control headache symptoms. Because each person responds differently to medicine, your doctor may have you try several medications before deciding which works best for you.

Painkillers do not usually relieve the pain from cluster headaches. Generally, they take too long to work.

Medicines for preventing cluster headaches may include:

These drugs may have severe side effects. Patients should call their doctor if they have chest pain, numbness or tingling in the fingers or toes, changes in heart rate, or any other unusual symptoms while taking these medicines.

The following medications may also be used to treat or prevent headache symptoms:

In rare cases, surgery on certain nerve cells near the brain may be recommended if medications do not work.

Outlook (Prognosis)    Return to top

Cluster headaches are not life-threatening and usually cause no permanent structural changes. However, they are chronic and may be painful enough to interfere with work or lifestyle. Occasionally, the pain may be so severe that some people may consider self harm. Side effects of medications or surgery may be severe.

Possible Complications    Return to top

When to Contact a Medical Professional    Return to top

Call for an appointment with your health care provider if cluster headaches do not respond to treatment, if headaches disturb sleep, if they happen whenever you are active, or are accompanied by other symptoms.

Emergency symptoms include drowsiness, vision changes, changes in movement or sensation, seizures, changes in alertness, and nausea or vomiting.

Prevention    Return to top

If prone to cluster headache, stop smoking. Alcohol use and any foods that are associated with cluster headache may need to be avoided. Medications may prevent cluster headaches in some cases.

References    Return to top

Silberstein SD, Young WB. Headache and Facial Pain. In: Goetz, CG. Textbook of Clinical Neurology. 3nd ed. St. Louis, Mo: WB Saunders; 2007: chap. 53.

Update Date: 6/19/2008

Updated by: Daniel B. Hoch, PhD, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

A.D.A.M. Logo

The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. Copyright 1997-2009, A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.