Cluster Headaches: Painful but Treatable and Preventable
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
“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
“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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