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I Suffer From Cluster Headache

Cluster Headache Treatment

According to the Headache International Society, Cluster headaches are a rare type of severe headache. Much less common than other primary headaches, cluster headaches affect around 0.1% of the population, and affect males 5-6 times more often than females.

Although cluster headaches are uncommon, they are regarded as excruciating, and the worst types of headaches you can experience. Out of the nearly 300 different headache diagnoses known to date, cluster headache attacks have the highest recorded pain level with the pain affecting one side of the head; most commonly around, behind, or above the eye and/or the temporal region. They are sometimes referred to as the ‘Suicide Headache’.

Once treatment with our headache experts commences we expect a significant improvement to occur rapidly in 90% of our patients with Cluster Headaches and within the first 5 treatment consultations.

Our cluster headache treatment does not require the use of medication or any surgery, it is non-invasive and is completely safe. Book an appointment today and our headache specialist will help you identify and treat the cause of your headache.


Understanding Your Symptoms

Common signs and symptoms of Cluster Headache

Cluster headache pain is severe to extreme in nature, and has been reported by female sufferers to be worse than the pain of childbirth. Cluster headache attacks occur in cyclical patterns or “cluster periods”. They will often awaken you in the middle of the night, or at set times during the day.

Duration of attacks range between  15 minutes – 3 hours, and may occur anywhere from 8 times per day to once every second day. Bouts of attacks known as ‘cluster periods’ can last for weeks or several months, followed by weeks, months or even years of remission (headache-free periods). If a cluster period lasts a year or more without letting up, it’s called chronic cluster headache.

Those with cluster headaches usually cannot keep still during an attack. They often try to relieve their pain by pacing the room, walking back and forth, or sitting down in a hot shower rocking back and forth, and sometimes hitting or banging their head against the wall until their pain stops.

Associated symptoms can include the following:
  • Severe pain behind or around the affected eye, and can radiate around the face, head and neck
  • Pain is unilateral and only on one side
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty with breathing
  • Redness in the eye
  • Watery and teary eye
  • Runny or congested nose
  • Swelling around eye and eyelid
  • Dropping of eyelid
  • Sweating of forehead and face
  • Pale skin or flushing of the face
Headache treatment in Brisbane

Understanding Your Headache

What is the cause of a Cluster Headache?

Research that has been conducted over the last 15 years has found that the primary contributing factor of Cluster Headaches are related to a disorder originating in the neck. Specifically, a fault in the upper cervical spine resulting in a sensitised brainstem which induces Cluster Headaches.

Recent research has discovered that acute treatment with medication such as Triptans not only help to reduce dilatation of the blood vessels, but more importantly desensitises the brainstem. This is done by reducing information received from cervical afferents i.e. nerve endings in the neck. This, in turn, decreases signals sent to the brainstem and inhibits pain travelling to the head. This information now indicates cluster headaches and migraines to be a direct result of a neck issue, accompanied by a sensitised brainstem.

About The Assessment Stage

What To Expect During The Assessment

1. Comprehensive and in-depth examination

We instigate an in-depth assessment to identify all possible related factors that could be causing your headaches or migraines. The upper cervical spine, in particular, is thoroughly examined to identify possible issues.

2. Ligamental stability and vertebral arterial tests

We undertake careful examination of neck ligaments and vertebral arteries, ensuring only the highest standards of patient safety and comfort.

3. Temporarily reproduce your headache and migraine symptoms

As a part of the treatment process, we apply gentle and selective stress to the upper cervical spine in order to reproduce headache symptoms, which subside after 20-30 seconds. This helps to identify and treat the cause of your headaches.

More about Cluster Headaches

Episodic Cluster Headache

This type accounts for roughly 80% of cluster headaches. Sufferers will have attacks with bouts of cluster periods which can last weeks or months, followed by pain-free periods called remission periods which can last months to years. They can often occur seasonally at set times during the year.

Chronic Cluster Headache

This type accounts for roughly 20% of cluster headaches. Sufferers will have attacks lasting for a year or more without remission periods. Some may have periods of headache-free days, however, remission periods often last less than one month.

How are Cluster Headaches diagnosed?

Cluster headaches are diagnosed primarily through a detailed history of the headache patterns and symptoms, and by ruling out other causes of the pain. An accurate diagnosis is critical, as cluster headaches can be very severe and manifest differently than migraines or tension headaches.

During a consultation, we will gather comprehensive information about the headache episodes, including their timing, location, frequency, and characteristics of the pain. To support the diagnosis, cluster headache patients may also undergo a physical and neurological examination as well as diagnostic tests, such as MRI or CT scans, to exclude other conditions. The distinctive nature of cluster headache pain and the absence of underlying causes often lead to a conclusive diagnosis.

Risk factors for Cluster Headaches

– Sex: Men are 5-6 times more likely to have cluster headaches than females

– Smoking can trigger cluster headaches. Heavy smokers, or persons whose parents are smokers have a greater risk of chronic cluster headaches.

– Alcohol: Significant alcohol consumption may be a risk factor.

– Age: The average age is between 20 to 50 years old, however, this condition can develop in all age brackets

– Family History: Having a family member with cluster headaches may also increase the risk

Cluster Headache Theory

As with many forms of headache, the cause of cluster headache was previously unknown. Medical professionals have been prescribing medications such as Triptans, which have been effective at relieving the pain, if taken early enough to ‘catch’ the headache. The effect of Triptans, as most doctors originally thought, was that it predominantly works on migraines as it helps prevent dilatation of the blood vessels in the head to stop migraines.

However, recent studies have shown that dilatation and expansion of the blood vessels are no different to those suffering from a migraine and those who are migraine-free. More importantly, the physiology of blood vessels in the head during a cluster headache do not expand, yet patients still benefit from medications such as Triptans.

There are other potential future treatments for cluster headaches currently being studied by researchers. These include sphenopalatine ganglion stimulation, occipital nerve stimulation and deep brain stimulation. These procedures have shown promise in treating the condition,  however more study needs to be conducted.

I’ve tried it all. What can be done to help my Chronic Daily Headache?

Treatment for Cluster Headaches

Although cluster headaches are rare, they still affect the Brisbane population. Sufferers have trialled different types of cluster headache treatments, including medication, injection therapy, neuropathy and utilise oxygen therapy tanks, all with mixed results.

One of the crucial things a cluster headache sufferer needs to accomplish is to find the cause of their symptoms. A thorough examination of your upper cervical spine is initiated to determine the severity of your sensitised brainstem. If you have been found to have a sensitised brainstem, and that it is the cause of your cluster headaches, treatment can begin.

Once treatment commences we expect a significant improvement to occur rapidly in 90% of our patients with Cluster Headaches and within the first 5 treatment consultations.

The best part about our treatment of cluster headache pain is that it does not require the use of medication, or any surgery, it is non-invasive and is completely safe.

At the Brisbane Headache and Migraine Clinic™, we have seen many patients with cluster headaches and are experts in treating cluster headaches. Therefore, we pride ourselves on keeping up with the most recent research, and applying the most effective cluster headache/cluster migraine treatment.

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