Cluster headache

Last updated: June 13, 2022

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Cluster headache (CH) is a type of primary headache that mostly affects adult men. Patients present with recurrent attacks of agonizing, strictly unilateral headaches in the periorbital and forehead region (areas innervated by the trigeminal nerve) that last from fifteen minutes up to three hours. These attacks are associated with ipsilateral symptoms of increased cranial autonomic activity, e.g., lacrimation, conjunctival injection, rhinorrhea, or partial Horner syndrome. Cluster headaches tend to occur in episodic patterns (called cluster periods or cluster bouts) followed by months of remission; they are considered chronic if remission between bouts lasts less than three months. Diagnosis is based on the patient's history, in particular on the exact description and timing of the headaches. In patients with red flag symptoms for headache, secondary headache should be ruled out using an MRI. Acute episodes are treated with 100% oxygen and/or triptans, and verapamil is most commonly used as prophylaxis.

Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.

The etiology of cluster headache is not entirely understood but is thought to involve a genetic component.

  • Headache characteristics
    • Agonizing pain
    • Strictly unilateral, periorbital, and/or temporal
    • Quickly developing (within minutes), short, recurring attacks; that usually occur in a cyclical pattern (“cluster periods”)
      • May become chronic (less common), with interruptions of less than three months between cluster bouts [2]
      • Attacks often wake patients up during sleep.
  • Ipsilateral autonomic symptoms
  • Restlessness and agitation

While patients with migraine headaches tend to rest motionlessly in a quiet, dark room, individuals with cluster headache pace around restlessly in excruciating pain!

References:[2][5][6][7][8]

Approach [1][9]

In patients with high-risk headaches, obtain further diagnostics to rule out life-threatening secondary headaches (e.g., SAH, meningitis).

Diagnostic criteria [2]

Diagnostic criteria for cluster headache

  1. ≥ 5 attacks that fulfill criteria 2–5
  2. Severe unilateral, orbital, supraorbital, and/or temporal pain for a duration of 15–180 minutes (if untreated)
  3. At least one of the following:
  4. Frequency: from 1 every other day to 8 per day
  5. Not better explained by another diagnosis

Subclassification

  • Episodic cluster headache
    • ≥ 2 cluster periods lasting 7 days to 1 year
    • Remission periods (i.e., pain-free periods) of ≥ 3 months
  • Chronic cluster headache
    • Cluster periods for ≥ 1 year
    • Remission periods of < 3 months, or no remission

See the article on “Headache for more information regarding differential diagnoses.

Paroxysmal hemicrania

Short-lasting unilateral neuralgiform headache attacks

References: [2][12][13][14][15]

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.

Approach [1][9][16]

  • Treat acute attacks using oxygen therapy and/or triptans.
  • Initiate prophylactic treatment (e.g., verapamil) to reduce the frequency of attacks.
  • Consider simultaneous transitional treatment until prophylactic treatment takes effect.
  • Recommend the avoidance of cluster headache triggers.
  • Neuromodulation therapy may be considered for patients with refractory symptoms.

Acute treatment [1][16][17]

Standard analgesics (e.g., acetaminophen, NSAIDs, opioids) are not recommended because they are ineffective and may lead to medication overuse headache if used frequently. [19]

To improve absorption, apply nasal sprays in the nostril unaffected by congestion.

Prophylactic treatment [9][16][20][21]

Transitional therapy with shorter onset latencies may be necessary until prophylactic treatment takes effect.

Neuromodulation [1][9][16]

Neuromodulation is usually reserved for cluster headache refractory to multiple medical treatments.

  • Noninvasive neurostimulation: noninvasive vagus nerve stimulation [9]
  • Invasive neurostimulation: e.g., sphenopalatine ganglion stimulation and occipital nerve stimulation [1][16]
    • Disadvantages: uncertain benefits, potential for serious adverse effects
    • Advantages: possible acute and prophylactic effects
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  9. Cittadini E, Matharu MS, Goadsby PJ. Paroxysmal hemicrania: a prospective clinical study of 31 cases. Brain. 2008; 131 (4): p.1142-1155. doi: 10.1093/brain/awn010 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  10. Alternatives in drug treatment of chronic paroxysmal hemicrania. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8783475. Updated: July 1, 1996. Accessed: April 2, 2017.
  11. Short-Lasting Unilateral Neuralgiform Headache With Conjunctival Injection and Tearing (SUNCT). https://www.msdmanuals.com/professional/neurologic-disorders/headache/short-lasting-unilateral-neuralgiform-headache-with-conjunctival-injection-and-tearing-sunct. Updated: April 1, 2020. Accessed: May 12, 2020.
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