Neurological conditions /

Cluster headache

Cluster headache is a rare headache disorder characterised by recurring bouts of excruciating headaches on one side of the head. It has been described as one of the most painful conditions known to man.

What is cluster headache?

Cluster headache is a rare headache disorder characterised by recurring bouts of excruciating headaches on one side of the head.

It has been described as one of the most painful conditions known to man. The intense pain is often reported to give rise to suicidal thoughts, giving rise to the name "suicide headache".

Most patients have 'episodic' cluster headache, characterised by 'clusters' of headache that last from four to 12 weeks. The patient will typically then have a headache-free period of several months or even years before the onset of another cluster. Around one fifth of patients do not have the pain free intervals and are said to have 'chronic' cluster headache.

During the bouts of headache, the frequency of attacks may vary from one attack every few days to multiple attacks per day. Each attack may range from 15 minutes to several hours.

Cluster headache impacts heavily on the lives of patients, causing multiple admissions to hospital, restricting people’s lifestyles and often leading to unemployment. It is associated with a threefold increase in risk of depression and suicidal tendencies are often reported.

Who is affected?

Cluster headache is rare, affecting around one in 1,000 people. That equates to 65,000 people in the UK.

It usually onsets after the age of 30 years, and is more common in males than females by a ratio of around 6:1.

Treatment

There is no cure for cluster headache.

There are two different approaches to treatment. Acute treatments aim to stop the pain during an attack, whereas preventive treatments aim to stop the onset of attacks.

Stopping the pain during an attack is difficult because the pain becomes extremely severe very quickly. Oxygen is one of the safest and most effective forms of acute treatment. Drugs called triptans can also reduce the pain of an attack.

Preventive drugs are designed to be taken when a bout of headaches starts and aim to stop the onset of attacks. Surgery is also an option for some people who do not respond to medication. Two procedures – deep brain stimulation and occipital nerve stimulation – have been used with some success in cluster headache patients.

How we help

Headache and facial pain is one of Brain Research UK's three three priority research areas. This means that we have identified a large unmet need in this area, coupled with a lack of research investment from other sources.

We want to improve the lives of those affected by cluster headache, and other headache and facial pain disorders, by funding research that addresses the causes and mechanisms of headache and facial pain, and advances diagnosis and treatment of these disorders.

We have awarded the following grants for research relevant to cluster headache: