A cluster headache is a form of primary headache; this means they are not caused by another underlying medical condition. Cluster headaches are very rare.

Symptoms of cluster headaches

Cluster headaches are often very painful and come on quickly for no apparent reason. Sometimes cluster headaches can occur several times a day. Commonly, pain is felt on one side of the head and is often located behind or around the eye.

Causes of cluster headaches

The exact cause of a cluster headache remains unknown; however, research has suggested a positive correlation between exercising in extremely high temperatures and an increased incidence of cluster headaches. People who drink heavily and some regularly are also more likely to suffer from cluster headaches.

Treatment for cluster headaches

There are two principal types of treatment for cluster headaches; these include medication to ease symptoms and medication to prevent headaches.

Easing symptoms

Cluster headaches cannot be cured using traditional over the counter pain relief medication as these do not work quickly enough. Instead, two methods are usually used; these include oxygen therapy and a medication called sumatripan. Sumatripan is usually injected soon after the onset of a cluster headache; most regular sufferers inject themselves with the medication. The drug works by narrowing blood vessels and subsequently decreasing the flow of blood to the brain. This method should not be recommended to those who suffer from heart or vascular disease. Oxygen therapy involves breathing in pure oxygen from an oxygen cylinder using a mask; patients usually do this up to 5 times a day.

Preventing cluster headaches

Preventive measures include medications such as verapamil, lithium, ergotamine and methysergide tablets; all patients using these drugs should be monitored closely as there is a risk of side effects; ergotamine and methysergide tablets should not be used for prolonged periods of time. If the headaches cannot be effectively controlled by medication alone it may be necessary to use treatments that target the occipital nerve. The occipital nerve spans from the spinal cord to the scalp and is heavily involved in the pain caused by cluster headaches. Treatment involving this nerve may include either blocking or stimulation; blocking stems the travel of nerve sensations such as pain by means of injecting local anaesthetic into the nerve. Nerve stimulation is a relatively new procedure and acts as a means of covering the pain of the cluster headache by making the patient feel additional electrical impulses.

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