What is Cluster Headache?
According to the Headache International Society, Cluster headaches are a rare type of headache. It affects around 0.1% of the population, and affects males 5-6 times more often than females.
Although cluster headaches are uncommon, they are regarded as excruciating, and the worst type of headache you can experience. Out of the near 300 different headache diagnosis known to date, cluster headache has the highest recorded pain level. They are commonly referred to as the ‘Suicide Headache’. The pain experienced is of a severe to extreme nature, and has been reported by female sufferers to be worse than the pain of childbirth. Attacks occur in cluster periods or in cyclical patterns. They will often awaken you in the middle of the night, or at set times during the day. Duration of attacks range between 15-180 minutes 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). Pain affects one side of the head most commonly around, behind, or above the eye and/or the temporal region.
Common signs and symptoms
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
- 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
Types of Cluster Headache
There are 2 types of cluster headache.
Episodic Cluster Headache
Accounts to 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 lasts months to years. They can often occur seasonally at set times during the year.
Chronic Cluster Headache
Accounts to 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 lasts less than one month.
Below are risk factors for cluster headache:
- Sex: Men are 5-6 times more likely to have cluster headaches than females
- Smoking: Sufferers are usually heavy smokers, or their parents are smokers
- Alcohol: Significant alcohol consumption may be a risk factor.
- Age: The average age is between 20 to 50 years old, however this condition can be 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 free1. 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. So, what is going on?
What causes 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 Headaches2. Recent research has discovered that 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 signal sent to the brainstem, and inhibits pain traveling into the head. This information now indicates cluster headaches and migraines to be a direct result of a neck issue, accompanied by a sensitised brainstem.
I’ve already tried everything. What else can be done to help Cluster Headache?
Although cluster headaches are rare, they still affect the population in Brisbane. Many sufferers have trialed different types of medication, injection therapy, neuropathy and utilise oxygen therapy tank, all with mixed results.
One of the crucial things a cluster headache sufferer needs to accomplish is to find the cause of their symptoms. Modern medicine moves very rapidly, and unfortunately this means that not everyone can keep up with all of the latest research. Many practitioners rely on the outdated medical model of the various forms of headaches to provide treatments to their patients. Here at the Brisbane Headache and Migraine Clinic™, we specialise in treating headaches and migraines. Therefore, we pride ourselves on keeping up with the most recent research, and applying the most effective treatments. At our Brisbane clinics, we have seen many with cluster headaches and use world-class techniques in assessing and treating the neck. A thorough examination of the 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 to be 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 consultation.
The best part about the treatment, is that it does not require the use of medication, it does not require any surgery, is non-invasive and is completely safe.
Imagine living a life free from migraines and saying goodbye to medications!
To gain your recovery today contact us on 1800 HEADACHE (toll free)
1800 43 23 22
1. Goadsby, P,J, (2009) The vascular theory of Migraine. A great story wrecked by the facts. Brain, 132 (1), pp 6-7.
2. Watson, D.H. and Drummond, P.D. (2014). Cervical Referral of Head Pain in Migraineurs: Effects on the Nociceptive Blink Reflex. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 54(6), pp.1035-1045.