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Cluster Headaches


Cluster headaches are excruciating attacks of pain in one side of the head, often felt around the eye.

Cluster headache is a rare but severe primary headache disorder — it is the most common trigeminal autonomic cephalalgia.

  • Recurrent attacks of one-sided pain, in or around the eye or temporal region.
  • Ipsilateral autonomic symptoms such as conjunctival injection and/or lacrimation, nasal congestion and/or rhinorrhoea, eyelid oedema, forehead and facial sweating or flushing.
  • Brief attacks of less than 3 hours duration.
  • Can be episodic with attacks occurring in periods lasting from 7 days to 1 year and separated by pain-free periods lasting at least 1 month.
  • Can be chronic with attacks occurring for more than 1 year without remission, or with remission periods lasting less than 1 month.
  • The cause of cluster headache is not fully understood
  • Be alert for clinical features which may indicate a serious secondary cause of headache.
Referral or discussion with a specialist:
  • Possible serious secondary cause of headache or where diagnosis is uncertain.
  • Presents with a suspected first bout of cluster headache.
  • Pregnant or breastfeeding.
  • Not responding to management in primary care.
  • Management of an acute attack of confirmed cluster headache in primary care:
    • Offer subcutaneous or nasal triptan (such as sumatriptan by subcutaneous injection) to people aged over 18 years (if appropriate).
    • Avoid paracetamol, NSAIDS, opioids, ergots and oral triptans.
    • Offer short burst oxygen therapy (100% oxygen at a flow rate of 12–15 litres per minute via a non-rebreather face mask for 15 to 20 minutes), if available and not contra-indicated.
    • Advise avoidance of triggers.
    • Advise risk of medication overuse headache.
    • Identifying and managing any comorbidities such as depression, anxiety, and sleep apnoea.
    • Provision of written and oral patient information on cluster headache and support organizations.
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