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The Frightening Pain of Cluster Headaches and Their Root Cause

Cluster headaches are known for pain that is only on one side of the head and is often felt around, behind, or above the eye and along the temple in cluster-like patterns. The pain associated with cluster headaches is extremely severe and has been described as a drilling sensation. Other symptoms are:

  • Watering or tearing of the eye on the same side as the pain

  • A stuffy or a runny nose

  • Redness in the affected eye

  • Droopy eyelid

  • Sweating on one side of the face

  • Changes in pupil size between the eyes (the affected eye having a smaller pupil)

  • A headache lasting 15 minutes to 3 hours

  • A headache happening up to 8 times a day

  • Sensitivity to light, odors, or sounds

  • Movement does not intensify, but sometimes helps the pain

  • Pain can radiate from along the forehead, into the jaw, along the gum line, and into the teeth

  • Cluster cycles may last for a single day or linger for weeks

During an attack, sufferers are unable to sit or lie still. They may rock, pace, and even hit their own head. Screaming and cursing are often seen. Some bang their head on the wall or tie scarves or belts around their head for relief. Obviously, they are not rational or calm during an attack. If an attack happens in public, it is scary to those watching, and they often call 911 or the police. Most of the time the severity of the pain inhibits patients from communicating. This has led people to begin wearing ID bracelets or carrying a card in their wallets to explain what is taking place.

Who Is at Risk for Cluster Headaches?

Cluster headaches are a very rare condition with only 1 in every 1000 people getting them. However, males are four times more likely to get them than females. Most sufferers are adults but cluster headaches have been seen in children as young as 6 years old. Sadly, because they are so rare, there is limited information available about them.

What Causes Cluster Headaches?

These headaches remain a mystery among researchers, though many theories abound. MRI studies show the dilation of the ophthalmic artery while a cluster headache is occurring, while PET scans show activity in the cavernous sinus. However, this is true with other headache types, as well. Some research points to the hypothalamus as being involved when cluster headaches hit. In addition, activation of the trigeminal ganglion can create the changes involved with cluster headaches, but it hasn’t been determined what triggers this.

What Triggers Cluster Headaches?

  • Alcohol

  • Histamines

  • Nitroglycerin

  • Change of seasons

  • Environmental changes

  • Increased stress or activity levels

  • Smoking

  • Genetics

  • Headaches often begin when one is asleep

Diagnosing Cluster Headaches

Generally, a patient’s medical history will be considered along with a physical exam. These headaches are unique and are often easily diagnosed because of their presentation. There is no blood or imaging test to confirm or dismiss a diagnosis. However, an MRI or CT scan will often be ordered to make sure there is no other cause for the pain. Also, eye examinations are often required to ensure that the problem does not lie with the eye itself.

Traditional Care for Cluster Headaches

There are basically two ways to care for cluster headaches: relief of a headache while it is occurring and prevention of future headaches. Pure, high-flow oxygen taken in through a non-rebreather mask has been seen to help. However, many insurance companies refuse to pay for this inexpensive method because doctors do not really understand why cluster headaches happen. Sumatriptan injections can help in some cases, but patients are limited to a few injections per month. This does not coincide with how cluster headaches occur, however.

Some preventative medications are useful. Verapamil is commonly prescribed but must be monitored closely because it can cause heart block. Topamax, lithium, and Depakote are also used. Steroids are an option, but there is little evidence to support their effectiveness. Surgery may be an option for a small group of people who are not helped by medication. This can involve deep brain stimulation or occipital nerve stimulation.

This is all very confusing and can be frustrating if you are dealing with pain at the time you must make a decision. Many people are leaning toward a more natural, non-invasive approach. The question is does it exist and where can you go for it?

Tackling Cluster Headaches Naturally

A study was conducted that observed 101 headache patients suffering from a variety of different types of headaches, including cluster headaches. The majority of these patients remember having some sort of injury to their head or neck before the onset of their headaches. They were examined, and it was found that they all had a misalignment in the bones of their upper neck – the C1 and C2 vertebrae. After receiving a specific adjustment for their individual problem, 85 of them had complete resolution of their headaches within one to eight months of upper cervical chiropractic care. The remaining participants saw significant improvement in the severity and frequency of their headaches.

We use a similar method to help our patients with cluster headaches. How does this work? The top bones of the neck (C1 or atlas and C2 or axis) are easily misaligned. This can be due to a minor accident or trauma (such as whiplash or tripping and falling). When they misalign, many things can be impacted, such as the brain, the nervous system, and blood flow.

We use a gentle method to help realign these bones, allowing the body to heal itself from any damage caused by the misalignment. This has proven to be successful, as in the above study, in helping those with cluster headaches, migraines, and other headache types.

To schedule a free 15 minute Upper Cervical consultation call 507-333-5388


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