Cluster headaches are rare, affecting about 1 in 1,000 people, and are among the most painful types of headaches people suffer. They are known by more than 10 different names, including histamine headache, migrainous neuralgia and Horton’s headache.
The most prominent characteristic of cluster headache is frequent attacks that may last from weeks to months. These “cluster periods” generally occur in the spring or fall, with headaches often beginning during sleep and lasting between 15 minutes and 3 hours. Some patients do not have these cluster periods and instead have attacks year round.
Cluster headache sufferers awake with intense, burning or stabbing pain on one side of the head, usually around the eye. Other characteristics of cluster headache include:
- Drooping of the eyelid on the affected side
- Swelling under or around the eye
- Watering and redness of one eye
- Swelling of one side of the face
- A red, flushed face
- A runny nostril on the same side as the head pain
Cluster headaches affect more men than women, with the onset generally occurring in adolescence or early middle age. There are a variety of treatments, including triptans, 100 percent oxygen delivered using a face mask, verapamil and lithium, although in a substantial number of patients, none of the treatments are effective. While cluster headaches are not life threatening, they are chronic and painful enough to interfere with daily life and work.
There are some hereditary causes – cluster headache tends to run in families – and some links to particular molecular pathways and areas of the brain, but the cause of cluster headaches is still unknown.
The Will Erwin Headache Research Center at the Memorial Hermann Mischer Neuroscience Institute is conducting a large-scale study of cluster headache with the goal of characterizing the disease in detail. For more information about the study, please call (713) 704-6900.