If you often get bouts of severe head pain that hits you in closely grouped episodes, you may have cluster headaches. Treatments can bring relief, and learning your triggers can help prevent new attacks.

Symptoms

These may include stabbing pain on one side of your head, usually behind or around your eye. This may shift to the other side during your next cluster period.

On the same side as your head pain, you may also have:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Droopy or swollen eyelid
  • Tearing or redness of the eye

You may also have other symptoms, such as:

  • Sweating and flushing of the face
  • Feeling restless

Cluster headaches can strike at any time of day or night. It's common for them to happen at the same time each day. The pain can also wake you up at night.

You may get warning signs that a cluster headache is about to begin, such as warmth or a feeling of burning in your face. After it starts, the pain sometimes spreads to other parts of your head, such as your jaw, neck, or ear.

These headaches usually ramp up quickly and can last for up to 3 hours. That's shorter than most migraines, but you can get more than one a day.

Types

Doctors call some cluster headaches "episodic," and others "chronic." The key difference is whether you ever get a break or they just keep coming.

Episodic. With this type, you have pain-free stretches that last for at least a month to years between groups of attacks, called cluster periods. Most people have this kind.

Episodic cluster headaches happen in groups that can last anywhere from 7 days to a year (on average, for 6-12 weeks). During each cluster period, you may have between one and eight headaches a day. Each one may last from 15 minutes to 3 hours, although medicine can shorten that time.

Chronic. These are regular headaches that continue for a year or longer. If you have any pain-free periods, they last for less than a month.

Causes

Scientists don't know exactly what causes cluster headaches.

Some studies suggest they may involve a problem in the part of your brain that controls your nervous system and things like your body temperature and blood pressure. The theory is that this part of your brain activates certain nerves in your face that cause pain, sinus swelling, and other symptoms.

Researchers think cluster headaches may also run in families. Genes could play a role.

Who's at Risk?

Men are 3 times more likely to get these headaches than women. Most people first get them when they're 20 to 50 years old.

If you smoke, or if you've ever had a head injury, that may also make them more likely.

What Are the Possible Triggers?

They may include:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Alcohol
  • Weather changes
  • Strong smells
  • Bright or flashing lights
  • Hot showers

 

WebMD Medical Reference

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