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Cluster Headaches

Cluster Headaches

What is a Cluster Headache?

Cluster headaches are the least common, but most painful, type of primary headache. They are characterized by short (15 minutes to 3 hour), intense headaches usually on one side of the head. These headaches come in series (clusters), occurring once or multiple times a day, and lasting for weeks or months.

Causes | Symptoms | Treatment | Prevention

What Causes Cluster Headaches?

Although it is unknown why cluster headaches occur, the following biological changes occur when you are experiencing a cluster headache:

  • Widening of the blood vessels supplying blood to the face
  • Pressure on the trigeminal nerve, which controls sensations to the face
  • Increased activity in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain responsible for controlling release of hormones, body temperature and blood pressure

Risk factors for developing cluster headaches include:

  • Genetics
  • Change in temperature (fall and spring)
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Strong smells
  • Abrupt changes in sleeping patterns
  • Extreme exercise in hot weather
  • Male – cluster headaches are twice as likely to affect men than women

What are the Signs and Symptoms of a Cluster Headache?

Cluster headaches occur in short (up to 3 hour) increments and recut daily for several weeks or months at a time. Symptoms of these headaches are:

  • Intense pain on one or both sides of the head
  • A burning, piercing or deep pain around the eye
  • Red or watering eye
  • Swelling or dropping around the eye
  • Dilated pupil
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Red, warm face
  • Pain in the forehead, teeth, nose, neck and shoulders of the affected side
  • Nausea and/or vomiting

How are Cluster Headaches Treated?

If you have cluster headaches, you should seek medical treatment. Cluster headaches can be very disruptive to your daily life, and increases the risk for depression and anxiety, so it is important to see your doctor for treatment.

The most common treatment is prescription medication from your doctor; these medications can be used to prevent cluster headaches, or treat them when you are in the middle of a cluster. Other treatments that you can use when in the middle of a cluster include:

  • Rest in a calm and dark environment
  • Apply ice to your neck
  • Use painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to ease the pain (if not contraindicated by your prescription medication)
  • Practice meditation and deep breathing techniques

Physiotherapy for Cluster Headaches

A pt Health physiotherapist can provide treatment to reduce the likelihood of entering or continuing in an attack of cluster headaches, including:

  • Strengthening and range of motion exercises
  • Manual therapy (joint and soft tissue mobilizations)
  • Soft tissue massage
  • Stretches to decrease the frequency and intensity
    • Therapeutic ultrasound
    • Heat and ice therapy
    • Electrical stimulation
    • Acupuncture
  • Education on cluster headaches and their prevention

Can Cluster Headaches go Away on Their Own?

Cluster headaches come and go in cycles, but there is no long term cure for them. Using preventative measures and pain medication can however lessen the likelihood of them occurring and decrease the severity of the headache if it does occur.

Can you Prevent Cluster Headaches?

If you have experienced cluster headaches previously, or have an increased risk for cluster headaches, you can take the following steps to avoid cluster headaches:

  • Avoid alcohol
  • Avoid heavy exercise in hot weather
  • Quit smoking
  • Maintain regular sleep cycles