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Cluster Headache

The below information is purely for educational purposes and does not constitute medical advice. This content should not be used as a substitute for professional medical advice.

Cluster Headache: What is a Cluster Headache?

A man sitting on a sofa with his hands pressing against the side of his head, as if trying to relieve a headache Cluster headache consists of agonising attacks of pain typically felt on one side of the head, often around the eye area or the forehead. These attacks typically last for anywhere between 15 to 180 minutes. They are more common in men and attacks tend to begin between the age of 30 and 50. Fortunately, cluster headaches are relatively rare, and treatments are available to lessen the pain of attacks and even prevent future attacks.

The condition is called cluster headache because attacks occur at the same time each day for several weeks. The attacks can be particularly agitating and disabling.

It is important to speak to your GP as soon as possible if you suspect you have had or are experiencing a cluster headache.

What Causes Cluster Headaches?

Risk factors for developing cluster headache include male sex, a family history, and prior head injury.

There are certain triggers, but the exact cause is unknown. Triggers include:

  • Consumption of alcohol during a bout of attacks
  • Strong-smelling chemicals such as perfume/aftershave, petrol, paint and other DIY products (typically those containing Volatile Organic Compounds ).
  • Overheating during exercise
  • Smoking

Cluster Headache Symptoms

A woman sat at a desk. She is holding her hand against her forward, as if trying to relieve a headache. There is a laptop on the desk. Cluster headache is characterised by excruciating pain, typically on one side of the head around the eye area or the temple. The pain is often felt on the same side of the head during each attack and is typically severe and disabling. An attack can lead to the sufferer rocking, pacing or even banging one’s head against the wall.

Additional possible symptoms of cluster headache include:

  • A red, watering eye on the affected side
  • The drooping/swelling of the eyelid on the affected side
  • A smaller pupil in the eye on the affected side
  • Sweating
  • A blocked or runny nostril, again, on the affected side
  • Nausea and vomiting

Cluster Headache Prevention

There are preventative treatments for cluster headache. The first line preventative treatment is a calcium-channel blocker called verapamil which is taken orally, however other medications and even surgery may play a role for some individuals. Preventative treatment may be necessary for those who experience chronic cluster headaches to ensure they can lead a normal life.

Cluster Headache Treatment

A pharmacist in a white coat stands, looking at a woman who is standing with her hands pressed against her temple as if showing where there is pain Over-the-counter pain relief is not typically effective for cluster headache. Specialist treatments and medication for cluster headache are available and should be implemented as soon as an attack begins. These include:

  • Sumatriptan injections – usually effective within 15 minutes, can be injected twice daily
  • Sumatriptan or zolmitriptan nasal spray – a fast-acting alternative to injections if preferred
  • Oxygen therapy whereby one breathes pure oxygen through a face mask. Studies suggest the use of oxygen for cluster headache works by contracting the cerebral vessels which widen during a cluster headache attack.

Cluster Headache and Medicinal Cannabis

Research into the effect of medicinal cannabis on pain associated with cluster headache is limited. However, following the legalisation of cannabis for medical purposes in 2018, there has been a rise in people looking towards medical cannabis. When first-line therapies have not proved effective at reducing symptoms, medical cannabis may be considered an option for cluster headache.

For further information and to find out more about medical cannabis, click here to discover more about our multi-award-winning Curaleaf Access Scheme. Alternatively, complete an eligibility assessment now. Once complete, one of our clinicians will review your application and advise whether you are eligible for progression to an appointment.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Cluster Headache

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Cluster headache is characterised by excruciating attacks of pain in the head, usually on one side of the head around the eye or temple.

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There is no evidence of cluster headache being life-threatening, however, they are excruciatingly painful and can cause disorientation and irrational behaviour due to the severity of the pain.

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You will experience agonising pain, usually in one side of the head that lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours. Unlike other headaches, the pain from a cluster headache is reported to be unbearable and cannot be relieved using over-the-counter medications.

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There are a few treatment options to relieve cluster headaches at home, these are:

  • Sumatriptan injections, sumatriptan or zolmitriptan nasal spray, or oxygen therapy.
  • In addition to treatment of acute attacks, it is also important to avoid exacerbating factors, such as smoking.
  • Finally, preventative medications and/or surgery may be applicable for certain individuals.
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Remission from cluster headache is normal and can last months or even years. Some people report having experienced one bout of cluster headaches without recurrence, other sufferers experience them daily in bouts that last for weeks or months at a time before they go back into remission. Recurrences and periods of remission vary from person to person.