Cluster headaches are recurring attacks of excruciating pain on one side of the head, often behind an eye. The pain may extend to the forehead, nose, cheek, upper jaw or back of the head on the same side. The attacks often happen multiple times per day with each attack lasting less than three hours, even without treatment. Most often, the attacks occur every day for several weeks or months and then subside for a period, though for some people the attacks can continue for months or even years.
Men experience cluster headache three to four times more often than women. Generally, this condition does not run in families.
Cluster headache attacks may occur nearly every day or several times a day for weeks or months and then disappear for months or even years. Attacks may last from 15 minutes to three hours, and often occur during the night.
There are two kinds of cluster headache: episodic and chronic. Those suffering from episodic cluster headaches have relatively long, pain-free remissions between headaches. Chronic cluster headache sufferers do not have long remissions. If during the past year or longer, you have had only one month or less of relief between headache attacks, you may have chronic cluster headache. About 10 percent of people with cluster headaches are considered chronic sufferers.
Other symptoms, which typically occur on the same side as the pain, include:
Cluster headaches are characterized by a specific type of pain and pattern of attacks. Keeping a headache journal is a great way to track the location, severity and duration of pain; medications; and possible headache triggers.
A physical exam may help your doctor detect signs of a cluster headache. One of your pupils may appear smaller than the other or your eyelid may droop.
If your doctor suspects a tumor or aneurysm, he or she may order one or more of the following tests:
Taking medications to prevent cluster headaches before they occur is typically the most effective treatment for cluster headaches. These medications include:
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.