What do acclaimed film director Frank Capra, Founding Father Thomas Jefferson and sorrowful writer Franz Kafka all have in common? They all suffered from the terrible condition known as cluster headache.
A cluster headache is a cephalalgia condition that is characterized by deep, agonizing pain concentrated around the ocular and sinus areas. As a primary headache, its origin is neuro-vascular. Cluster headache sufferers are usually surprised by sharp pain attacks that plateau after 15 minutes.
Chronic incidence of cluster headaches is thankfully rare, but episodic attacks can be difficult for patients to live with. Cluster headaches are a form of primary cephalalgia, which means they are not the result of other medical conditions. They are similar to migraines in the sense that both result from physiological or chemical irregularities of the blood vessels and nerves that interact with the hypothalamus.
Cluster Headache Symptoms
Although cluster headaches often arrive without warning, some patients report feeling the onset of a migraine headache prior to succumbing to sharp pangs of pain. In reality, the slight nausea and lack of comfort felt by these patients are part of the cluster headache, which usually peaks after 15 minutes and can linger for a few hours.
The pain associated with cluster headaches is unmistakable. The pain bunches up around the patient's eye and feels very deep; it usually concentrates on one side of the face, similar to the cold-stimulus or “ice-cream” headaches, although in this case the pain does not seem to go away and it may radiate a few inches out to the sufferer's face.
The patient's eyes may tear up and the nose may become runny during a cluster headache episode. The pupils will invariably contract and the sweat glands around the forehead will become active. Sensitivity to sound will increase considerably to the point that whispers become uncomfortable, and a similar reaction to light will become manifest.
When patients face their first cluster headache episode, they may self-medicate with over-the-counter analgesics. They will try to relax, meditate and drink water. Should the episodes reappear and become acute, physicians may recommend oxygen therapy to alleviate the sharp pain. An injection of sumatriptan, which is used in the treatment of migraine headaches, may also be administered.
Medications used in the treatment of high blood pressure may be used to manage the return of cluster headaches, which should only become chronic in about one percent of sufferers. Behavioral therapy is often recommended as a complement to medications, and discontinuing the consumption of tobacco and liquor is highly recommended.
Although women are usually more likely to suffer from migraines, men are more likely to get cluster headaches. For some reason, drinking beer and smoking tend to trigger these terrible headaches, which should prompt patients to change their habits. Untreated cluster headaches may result in continuous stress and severe depression.
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