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Cluster headaches: Signs, symptoms and treatment

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Cluster headaches are incredibly painful. But although they’re not usually a sign of anything serious, they will need to be managed and treated.


 What are cluster headaches?

The symptoms of cluster headaches are characterised by unilateral (one sided) head pain, although the affected side can change over time. The pain is usually located in the forehead, in one temple, or over one of the eyes.

We’re not talking about a standard headache here. Sadly, those suffering with cluster headaches can be in so much pain they often pace around and experience high anxiety.

Cluster headaches are more common in men than women, at a ratio of 3:1.


 Spotting a cluster headache

The pain that results from a cluster headache tends to occur at a similar time each day. Often, those suffering with cluster headaches will be woken by the pain during the night, typically a couple of hours after they’ve gone to sleep. The pain usually hits peak intensity within 5 to 10 minutes and can maintain this agonising level for between 30 and 60 minutes.

If a person is very fortunate, a cluster headache may only last 15 minutes in total, but they can go on for as long as 3 hours. Sometimes just one or two headaches occur in a day, but a bad cluster can bring about as many as 8. There are many triggers, including alcohol, caffeine, stress, certain foods or particular fragrances.

Anyone can suffer with cluster headaches and they usually start during early adulthood. They also commonly run in families.


 Obtaining a diagnosis

No formal way exists in diagnosing cluster headaches, so healthcare professionals will need to take detailed symptoms and a thorough patient history. An MRI scan should also be considered to rule out any serious underlying conditions. This is particularly the case if the patient has never suffered with cluster headaches before, or if the severity of the pain has increased.

Some patients may also be referred to a headache specialist in a hospital or headache clinic. This is because cluster headaches are uncommon, rather than dangerous or life threatening, so patients may take part in studies.

There are a large number of treatments available to help relieve symptoms of cluster headaches. These include lithium and corticosteroids although the treatment pathway will be very individual to each patient.


 Are you a healthcare professional and want to know more?

Why not brush up your skills with our one-day CPD course Minor illness triage essentials or our 3 day RCN accredited Minor Ailments Essentials course. Both courses are aimed specifically at nurses, paramedics and other allied healthcare professionals.  The programmes look at the assessment, history taking and diagnosis of minor illness as well as red flags to watch out for.

Held entirely online, it’s the ideal opportunity to build up your skills and knowledge during COVID-19 isolation. They are also flexible, informative, and interactive.

The courses fill up quickly so book today to avoid disappointment!