Cluster Headache

Cluster headache, also called an "alarm clock" headache occurs in cycles. It attacks in spurts or "waves." You may go months without experiencing it, but then suffer one every night at the same time for a few weeks. The frequent attacks are normally felt around one eye, a burning, throbbing sensation that wakes you from your sleep.

Unlike migraine and tension head pain, the cluster headache generally isn't associated with triggers, such as foods, hormonal changes or stress. But once the pain begins, consumption of any alcohol can quickly trigger a splitting headache. For this reason, many people avoid alcohol for the duration of a cluster period.

Other possible triggers include the use of medications such as nitroglycerin, a drug used to treat heart disease. Nitroglycerin can come in an ointment for fissures or bad cuts. The problem is that the nitroglycerin can get in the blood stream and dilate blood vessels in the brain, raising heart rate and putting pressure on the meninges and nerves surrounding the vessels. This can cause a throbbing headache within minutes of applying the cream. It's usually best to find another ointment or discuss other procedures.

Alcohol or extreme fluctuations in temperature can trigger an episode during a cycle of headaches. A rapid rise in body temperature often sets it off. Nasal congestion and sensitivity to light can accompany a headache, which normally affects one side of the head and around one eye. The excruciating pain can radiate from the eye down one side of the head to the neck and shoulders. Cluster headache normally lasts from 1 to 15 minutes.

The risk factors for headaches are being male, adult, of African descent, a smoker, and a drinker of alcohol.  pain can occur in the spring and fall more commonly than in summer or winter.

Breathing 100% oxygen can reduce the severity of the headache, but this is impractical for most people. Over the counter drugs are usually not effective for cluster headache because by the time they start working, your headache is over. Sumatriptan, developed for migraine headache, can be of help. Dihydroergotamine can also help. No cure is known. Some people who grind their teeth at night believe the teeth and jaw pain can trigger or worsen with pain. A good night mouth guard can help.

So, if you're unlucky enough to suffer from cluster headache, instead of the more treatable tension headache, diet-related headache, or migraine, try monitoring your body temperature, don't drink or smoke, and have an oxygen tank handy.


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