Do you sometimes feel really bad pain on one side of your head and face? Do your eyes tear up at the same time? If so, you may be experiencing a cluster headache. Cluster headaches are a fairly common form of repeated headaches. Men get them more often than women, usually in adolescence and middle age. And they tend to run in families.
Although we don't know why they happen, they appear to be related to your body releasing chemicals when you encounter things like alcohol, high altitudes, bright light, and heat, among other triggers like certain foods. A cluster headache starts suddenly, and it can be severe. It commonly strikes two to three hours after you fall asleep. But you might get one while you're awake too. Either way, you'll tend to get a headache at the same time of day.
The pain typically occurs on one side of your head. You may feel like your head is burning, and the pain will probably be sharp and steady, the worst of it often lasting as long as two hours. You may get headaches daily for months, which is why they're called cluster headaches. Then they may go away for months, only to come back.
Your doctor will give you a physical exam and ask questions about your symptoms and medical history. You may need an MRI to rule out other headache causes. Unfortunately, treatment won't cure your cluster headaches, but it should relieve your symptoms. Your doctor will ask you to avoid things that seem to trigger your headaches. You may need medicines such as triptans, several weeks of an anti-inflammatory steroid, oxygen therapy, or even injections of a drug that can stop a headache in five minutes.
Call for an appointment with your doctor if cluster headaches do not respond to treatment, if they disturb sleep, if they happen whenever you are active, or are accompanied by other symptoms. Emergency symptoms include drowsiness, vision changes, changes in movement or sensation, seizures, changes in alertness, and nausea or vomiting. Cluster headaches aren't life-threatening, but they ARE chronic and often painful enough to interfere with your work and daily life. But if you don't smoke or drink alcohol, and stay away from other triggers, you can avoid a lot of your headaches.
Review Date: 2/18/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.