Did you know that while most people celebrate the start of summer on June 21, nearly 1 million Americans are facing the debilitating pain of cluster headaches due to the Earth’s shift towards the sun? It’s true. The human biological rhythm is tied into the earth’s rotation, making individuals who suffer cluster from headaches encounter unrelenting head pain.
As the name suggests, cluster headaches occur close in proximity and often throughout a day, on average, lasting 30 minutes to three hours. In about 80% of people with cluster headache, head pain lasts for up to 12 weeks each year – most often occurring during seasonal changes. Cluster headache may be accompanied by symptoms such as eye watering or swelling or nasal congestion on the side of the head experiencing pain. Men are up to four times more likely to develop cluster headache than females, which contradicts migraine tendencies.
“Cluster headache, also known as ‘suicide headache,’ is a neurological disorder characterized by severe pain behind or around one’s eye,” said Brian M. Grosberg, M.D., director, Montefiore Headache Center and associate professor, Clinical Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University. “It is one of the most painful conditions a person can experience, even more incapacitating than a migraine. When patients come in with a cluster headache, they often share how it impacts their personal and professional lives and how the sensation is so severe they feel at the end of their rope.”
The Montefiore Headache Center was the first center in the world to focus exclusively on diagnosis and treatment of headache disorders. Through ongoing work in this area, experts have found that seasonality associated with cluster headache has led to the condition often being misdiagnosed as sinus headache. To help improve diagnoses and encourage collaboration between patients and healthcare specialists, the Center encourages headache sufferers to record headache details in a diary or log.
“I infrequently get a headache, however, during the longest and shortest days of the year, the left side of my face would contort and I would be in severe pain,” said Robert Drain, a former firefighter, who lives in Yonkers. “I would find myself walking in circles; it was almost like I was trying to run away from the agony. By tracking my headaches in a log, Dr. Grosberg and I were able to figure out that I was experiencing cluster headaches.”
For those who suffer from cluster headache and wish to prevent onset of symptoms and help minimize severity of headache pain, Dr. Grosberg recommends the following:
- Avoid drinking alcohol or smoking during cluster headache periods.
- Consider taking the hormone melatonin. It can help regulate sleep-wake cycles and restore imbalances in the body that might be related to cluster headache.
- Consider the use of breathing in 100% (pure) oxygen for 10-15 minutes to treat an attack of cluster headache. Studies have found that high-flow oxygen inhalation therapy can help relieve cluster headache symptoms within a short period of time.
- Ask your doctor about prescription medications. Calcium-channel blockers like Verapamil, which is often used to treat high blood pressure, and Imitrex, which is offered as an injectable medication, can be effective in cluster headache pain relief.
- Speak with a headache specialist about different remedies. Cluster headache can take a lot of trial and error so it is important to have honest and open dialogue with physicians.
*Image of “man with headache” via Shutterstock