Cluster headache is a rare headache syndrome characterized by severe pain around one eye or on one side of the head. These headaches are often referred to as “suicide headaches” because of the intense, often unbearable pain they cause. They are considered to be one of the most painful types of headaches and can have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life.
Thirty-nine million Americans suffer from debilitating headaches, and 1 in 1000 suffer from cluster headaches. While women are more likely to suffer from migraine, men are more likely to suffer from cluster headaches, making up 75% of diagnoses. Cluster headaches usually start in a person’s twenties to forties.
Cluster headache symptoms are similar to those of migraine headache but with some unique features. Like migraines, individuals with cluster headaches may experience increased sensitivity to light, noise, and smell, as well as nausea and vomiting. Additionally, cluster headaches are often accompanied by an autonomic nervous system response, which can manifest as a bloodshot eye, runny nose, droopy eyelid, and swelling or sweating of the forehead on the side of the head where the pain is located. These autonomic symptoms occur only on the same side as the pain; while they can also occur in migraine, they tend to be on both sides in migraine. Unlike migraine, during a cluster headache individuals are restless, often rocking in place or pacing around the room.
Cluster headaches are classified into two types: episodic and chronic. Episodic cluster headaches are the most common and affect 80-90% of sufferers. These individuals experience 1-8 headaches a day for weeks or months at a time, followed by a headache-free period of months or even years. However, the headaches will eventually return in the form of another cluster. These clusters of headaches tend to happen in the fall and spring. On the other hand, chronic sufferers, who make up 10-20% of cluster headache sufferers, have more regular headaches and do not experience a headache-free period.
One of the most significant effects of these headaches is the financial cost they can impose. According to studies, migraines alone cost around $14 billion each year in lost wages and lost productivity. Cluster headaches, which are even more severe than migraines, are similarly disabling, especially for chronic cluster headache. In addition to the financial burden, individuals with cluster headaches are also more likely to suffer from mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.
The Will Erwin Headache Research Foundation is dedicated to finding a cure for debilitating headaches and supporting the pain warriors who endure migraine and cluster headaches. To this end, we share resources and updates on innovations in research to raise awareness and provide sufferers with hope. If you would like to contribute to the future of headache research and our mission, consider contributing today.