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Neurosciences and Behavioral Health Center

Cluster Headache

Cluster headaches cause severe, recurring pain on one side of the head in a pattern or cluster of occurrence.

Cluster headache symptoms of watery eye, runny nose and drooping eyelid.
Symptoms of a Cluster Headache
Copyright © Nucleus Medical Media, Inc.

Two main types of cluster headaches occur:

  • Episodic cluster headaches occur one or more times daily for multiple weeks. The headaches then go away and come back months or years later.
  • Chronic cluster headaches occur almost daily with headache-free periods lasting less than one month.

Either type of headache may switch to the other type.

Causes & Risk Factors

A combination of widening of the blood vessels and inflammation of the nerves of the face may cause cluster headache pain.

Other possible causes include:

  • Alcohol use
  • Changes in barometric pressure
  • Changes in sleep pattern
  • Tobacco use
  • Medications, such as nitroglycerin

Men aged 20-50 years are more likely to get cluster headaches. Factors that may increase your chance of getting cluster headaches include:

  • Prior head surgery or head injury
  • Family history of cluster headaches


Symptoms may include:

  • Stabbing, penetrating, burning or explosive head pain that:
    • Begins suddenly
    • Is on one side of the head, but not both
    • Often starts around the eye and spreads to the same side of the head
    • Causes facial flushing
    • Can occur daily or almost every day for multiple weeks
    • Can occur 1-8 times per day
    • Lasts 15 minutes to 3 hours
    • Often occurs at about the same time each day
    • May increase in intensity over time
    • May start within two hours of going to sleep
    • Can awaken you from sleep
    • Causes an aura. This can include visual disturbance, visual spots or the inability to move one side of the body.
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Nausea

During the headache, other symptoms may occur on the affected side, including:

  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Redness or watering of the eye on one side
  • Droopy eyelid
  • Constriction of the pupil of the eye
  • Facial swelling and flushing, sweating
  • Sensitivity to light and noise


A neurological exam may include examining:

  • Mental status
  • Cranial nerve functioning
  • Motor and sensory functioning
  • Reflexes
  • Coordination
  • Walking

The doctor will ask about the frequency and pattern of your headaches. To help provide answers, you may consider keeping a diary of:

  • When your headaches started and ended
  • What you were doing at the time
  • What you tried to relieve the pain

CT or MRI scans can rule out other disorders.


Treatment aims to reduce the frequency of headaches and help relieve pain.

Lifestyle Changes and Self-care 

  • Maintain the same sleep routine. Avoid afternoon naps or sleeping in, which may bring on more headaches.
  • Do not drink alcoholic beverages. Even a small amount of alcohol can trigger a headache during a cluster period.
  • Learn stress management techniques. Stress can bring on a headache.
  • Do not smoke. Tobacco may interfere with medications.
  • Find out what your triggers are and take steps to avoid them.


Medications used to treat migraines often relieve sudden attacks of cluster headaches. These drugs must be taken at the first sign of a headache.

In some cases, the headache does not last long enough for medications to be helpful. Sometimes, the medications just delay an attack, rather than stop an attack.

Pain killers, especially narcotic drugs, may not be effective during an acute attack.

Oxygen Therapy

Breathing 100 percent oxygen for 10-15 minutes often relieves cluster headache pain. This is often viewed as the front-line therapy for cluster headache. The oxygen appears to decrease blood flow to the affected area of the brain. People under age 50 who have episodic cluster headaches seem to benefit most from oxygen therapy.

Oxygen therapy can be expensive. There are also risks with this therapy.


As a last resort, some doctors may recommend cutting or destroying a facial nerve to eliminate pain.


Sometimes, you can prevent cluster headaches by doing the following:

  • Maintain a regular sleep routine.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Avoid alcohol, narcotic analgesics, bright sunlight and emotional stress.
  • Get moderate physical exercise.
  • Practice relaxation techniques.
  • Take your medication as directed.


Call 434.924.2706.


Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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