Cluster headaches are one of the most debilitating conditions you can experience, particularly if you get them often. They’re also one of the most frustrating to identify and diagnose, and medical science is unclear as to the real cause. It’s believed that overstimulation of the hypothalamus is the primary cause, however. This is the section of the brain that regulates our sleep patterns, and its disturbance results in the development of headaches.
The best you can do is to try and determine what triggers your headaches, and then learn to avoid situations that are likely to result in a cluster headache.
Here are some of the most common triggers of this type of pain:
Allergies are by far the most popular theory, based on the fact that the majority of cluster headache sufferers experience an increase in frequency and severity during spring and fall. In fact, seasonal allergies themselves aren’t a direct cause of headaches, but they do result in increased stimulation of the hypothalamus. This is why cluster headaches seem to occur on a cyclical basis that matches the seasons of the year.
Alcohol and Tobacco
As with allergies, alcohol and tobacco aren’t actual triggers of cluster headaches themselves. When you’re in a cluster headache period, however, such as during the spring or fall when your hypothalamus is already being over-stimulated on a regular basis, you’re likely to be much more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and nicotine. It’s during those periods that using alcohol and tobacco products might bring on the arrival of a cluster headache.
Stress can be a major cause of migraine headaches, but as with the other cluster headache triggers it isn’t personally to blame for your pain. If your hypothalamus is in a state of stimulation, however, stress is one of the things that can push you “over the edge” into a headache state.
Some medications are known to interact poorly with the hypothalamus. Nitroglycerin, for example, which is used to treat heart disease and comes in the form of tablets and skin patches, is commonly considered to be a trigger for a cluster headache. It’s also possible than hormonal medications can over-stimulate your hypothalamus, particularly during a period of heightened sensitivity. By keeping track of when your headaches arrive, the medications you take, time of year and your activities at the time, you may be able to identify the triggers that affect you.
Some people run a higher risk of developing cluster headaches than others. Some of these are:
- Gender: Men are more frequent sufferers of cluster headaches than women.
- Age group: Patients are usually between the ages of 20 and 50 when they develop the headaches for the first time, although you can be any age when it first starts.
- Drinking and smoking: People who smoke and/or drink alcohol have a higher risk for headaches, particularly during periods of increased sensitivity.
- Family history: If members of your family have a history of getting cluster headaches, this increases your chances of doing the same.
The headaches don’t seem to have any relationship with illnesses such as Alzheimers or Parkinsons diseases, and research shows there’s no connection between brain tumors or cancer and headaches. Some experts believe there is a similarity between migraines and cluster headaches that involves the trigeminal nerve, which carries sensation from your head to your brain. The differences are just as significant, though, as is the treatment for the two types of problem.
Once you know which of these triggers commonly causes you to develop a cluster headache, you can try to avoid putting yourself in positions where it can happen. Other common ways to prevent the headaches from taking hold include:
Sticking to a regular sleep schedule. It’s especially important during a cluster period to stick you your usual routine and avoid changes in pace, timing and rest. Preventing stress and keeping your use of alcohol and tobacco to a minimum may help, and if you’re taking heart medications it may be worth discussing this with your doctor to see if you can try an alternative preparation.
Certain herbal remedies are believed to be useful in preventing and relieving cluster headaches, such as melatonin and kudzu extract. Meditation techniques such as mindfulness are also popular coping methods used by sufferers.
If you regularly get cluster headaches it may be worthwhile for you to consult with a specialist and see whether there are alternative options you can consider.