Symptoms and characteristics of cluster headache

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June is National Migraine and Headache Awareness Month. The global burden of headache is extremely large, putting headache among the top 10 causes of disability worldwide.

One particular headache, cluster headache, has been described as the most painful type of headache one can endure. It has been nicknamed by some sufferers as the "killer" or "suicide" headache.

While uncommon (the prevalence is about 10 per 100,000 in male patients, about 19 to 25 times less than the prevalence of migraine in men), cluster headache is a neurological disorder with excruciating pain that sometimes leads to suicidal thinking. It is easy to diagnose, but also easy to mislabel as a sinus headache.

View a graphic describing the symptoms and characteristics of cluster headache.

There is a difference between the trigger factors and the cause. During a cluster cycle, attacks can be induced by alcohol, nitroglycerine, or histamine. The cause of cluster headaches, however, are very complex and not well understood.

The treatment of cluster headache is two-fold. Its aim is to abort the acute headache attack as well as shorten and stop the cluster cycle. The most effective and safest therapeutic modality is pure 100 percent oxygen. Many patients will use a small oxygen tank at home as well as at work, so that it can be used whenever an attack commences.

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