Cluster headache

Cluster headache is a rare type of primary headache, affecting only about 5 people in 1000. The pain associated with cluster headaches is very severe.

Unlike migraine, cluster headaches occur much more frequently in men; overall about 6 men are affected for every one woman. Cluster headaches also seem to mostly affect smokers.

Symptoms and signs

The pain associated with cluster headache is excruciating and always one-sided. Usually the pain is centred around one eye, but it can spread over a larger area of the head. Commonly the eye will become red, weepy and swollen and the eyelid may droop. Sufferers can also develop a runny or stuffy nose.

Because of the severity of the pain, people may pace the room, or bang their head against the wall out of frustration.

Cluster headache attacks last about 15 minutes to 3 hours (but usually less than one hour), and occur in clusters (hence the name), for example, several attacks each day, or one every other day, for a period of weeks or months. Attacks often occur at the same time of the day, and even at the same time of the year.


Cluster headaches do not respond to treatment with normal pain relievers. Sumatriptan (Imigran) by injection and oxygen can relieve the pain of cluster headaches. There are also medicines you can take to help prevent cluster headaches, but management is complex and usually best managed by a specialist (neurologist).

If you believe you may be suffering from cluster headaches talk to your doctor.

  • National Prescribing Service Limited. Headache. NPS News 79. Sydney: NPS, 2012. (accessed 17 July 2012)
  • British Association for the Study of Headache. Guidelines for all health professionals in the diagnosis and management of migraine, tension-type-type headache, cluster headache and medication overuse headache. Hull: BASH, 2010. (accessed 13 December 2011)
  • Neurology Writing Group. Therapeutic Guidelines: Neurology, Version 4 Updated November 2011 [eTG complete CD-ROM]. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Ltd, 2011.
  • Scottish Intercollegiate Guidlines Network. Diagnosis and management of headache in adults. Edinburgh: NHS Quality Improvement Scotland, 2008. (accessed 19 December 2011).