Migraines have become so well known that many people simply categorize any severe headache as a “migraine.” This isn’t accurate, however, and there are a number of differences between migraines and other types of debilitating headaches. Cluster headaches, in particular, are very painful and have actually caused patients to commit suicide on occasion. How do you know whether that blinding pain in your head is a migraine or cluster headache? These comparisons will help you to determine what you’re suffering from:
Characteristics of Pain
Cluster headaches are always on one side of the head only, and are usually felt around the eyes or towards the back of your head. The pain typically lasts from 30 minutes to three hours, and multiple attacks can occur up to six times in a single day. The pain feels like stabbing and is fairly severe right away, peaking within about 45 minutes of its onset.
Migraine pain is most frequently a deep, throbbing pain on either one side of the head or both sides. It can start out moderate and lasts for up to 24 hours, often getting much more severe by the time it peaks. Most sufferers experience migraines 2 to 7 times a month, and the pain can develop at any time of the day or night.
Causes and Triggers
Family history and genetics play more of a role in migraines than they do in cluster headaches. The majority of migraine sufferers are female and the condition can begin at any age. Up to 90% of patients have a family history of migraines, and the headaches are triggered by exposure to:
- Bright lights
- Loud noises
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Skipping meals
- Exposure to allergens, such as smoke, pollen etc.
- Menstrual cycles
- Consumption of certain foods, such as chocolate, nuts, onions, dairy products or pickles.
Cluster headaches are typically related to family history in only 7% of patients. These headaches are more often experienced by male patients over the age of 20 years, and can be triggered by exposure to substances such as nitroglycerin, alcohol and hydrocarbons found in perfume and industrial solvents.
Apart from the pain of the headaches, both migraines and cluster headaches come with other symptoms. These are mostly different, depending on the type of headache, so they provide a good indicator for patients to determine what kind of headache they are experiencing:
Migraines usually result in blurred vision, 85% of patients develop nausea and vomiting and most find they tear up. The pupils of the eye constrict only occasionally, and sometimes patients experience nasal drainage during the event. Patients become sensitive to light and sound, and usually have warning signs such as seeing a visual “aura” for up to an hour before the migraine develops. This may enable them to escape to a quiet, dark room before the headache arrives.
With cluster headaches, however, patients seldom experience nausea, vomiting or blurred vision, although the constriction of the pupil happens in up to 50% of cases. A runny nose and watering eyes are much more common than they are in migraines, and there are seldom warning signs before the headache develops. Sometimes, you might experience breathing problems with the nostril on the side of the pain.
Treatment and Care
Treatment of the two types of debilitating headaches can be similar in that medications such as NSAIDS are useful for milder cases. For lifelong migraine sufferers, however, new hope is available in the form of 5 types of migraine surgery that can help in up to 90% of cases. Preventive treatments such as lifestyle and dietary changes help to keep migraine headaches at bay, and anti-nausea drugs are commonly used during a migraine to reduce the likelihood of vomiting and dehydration
Cluster headaches benefit from treatment with local anesthetics in the form of nasal sprays or injections, or opioids such as codeine. Occasionally, medical practitioners might prescribe the use of oxygen for patients with cluster headaches.
Both of these types of headaches cause significant suffering in patients, and both have remedies if you get specialized medical treatment in a timely fashion. Don’t wait until your headaches start making life challenging; get treatment early so you can return to your normal activities as soon as possible.