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What is cluster headache?

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The information below is a short summary of my own findings about cluster headaches. I would like to stress that I am not a medical professional. For medical advice I urge you to consult your GP or neurologist.

Cluster headache: My definition

Cluster headache, also known as Horton’s neuralgia, is a neurological condition typically expressed by attacks of extreme pain around the eye on one side of the head. The pain of such an attack is among the most severe pains a human can endure. It is so excruciating that a sleeping sufferer will literally wake up when an attack occurs.
Attacks often occur at the same times of day. I can concur. When I wasn’t in treatment yet this was most definitely the case. The attacks came like clockwork between 9 and 10 AM. Click here to read how I experienced such an attack.

Properties of an attack

A cluster headache attack can last from 15 minutes up until 3 hours. De pain rises quickly and disappears as suddenly. An attack can be accompanied by other symptoms such as nasal congestion, teary eye, sweating. A patient can hardly sit still during an attack, contrary to a migraine patient, who tends to want to lie down during an attack. A lot of patients rock nervously back and forth and don’t know how to compose themselves during attacks. Sometimes patients have suicidal thoughts, there are cases of people desperately taking their own lives because of the extreme pain that cluster headache attacks cause. Hence the dark nickname of ‘suicide headache’.

Kinds of cluster headache

There are two kinds of cluster headache forms: episodic and chronic. With episodic cluster headache the attacks occur in bouts or ‘clusters’. A patients gets attacks during a couple of weeks, which disappear for a couple of months or even years. This can be seasonal for instance. Episodic cluster headache is present with 1 in 1.000 people.
Chronic cluster headache patients are classified as such if they are never pain free for longer than one month. 1 in 10.000 people are unfortunate enough to be in this situation. There are people that suffer more than one attack a day which often leads to the inability to work.

Causes of cluster headache

Nobody knows what causes cluster headaches. The progression of the disease is also very different for each individual patient, which makes it much harder to pinpoint the cause. A lot of treatments however are directed at managing the pain.
Luckily there are some drugs that seem to work for a lot patients, but there is also a small group within the population that can’t find adequate relief with prescribed medication. This unfortunately includes me. I’ll write some more about medication and treatments that are common in Belgium in later posts.

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