What are the Triggers of Cluster Headache & How Long Does it Last?

Cluster headache is a type of headache where the affected individual experiences pain over one side of the head. Cluster headache causes extreme discomfort; however, it is not a life threatening situation and a rare phenomenon. These headaches follow a cyclic pattern and occur in clusters predominantly behind any one eye and along the temple of the same side. The pain in cluster headache is often described as a “drilling sensation” and it may be accompanied with other symptoms like redness over the conjunctiva, excessive tearing of the eye, discomfort in the nasal cavity, droopiness of eyes, profuse sweating usually over the affected area of the face etc. The pupil of the eye may appear smaller than usual. With right treatment done at appropriate time, these attacks of cluster headache tend be under more control and the episodes get shorter gradually.

Triggers of Cluster Headache

Triggers of Cluster Headache

A large number of studies are being carried out to understand the exact cause and possible triggers of cluster headache. The exact cause that leads to cluster headache has still not been discovered. Current studies show that the pattern of cluster headache is possibly due to disorders in the body’s biological clock that is majorly controlled by the hypothalamus. Cluster headache may also be related to blood vessels abnormalities and nervous system abnormalities leading to damage in parts of the head and neck region.

It has been noted that unlike the other known types of headache like tension headache and migraine headache, cluster headache does not have any specific triggering agents like stress, hormonal changes or food. Some researchers believe that alcohol consumption may trigger this kind of headache. Other possible trigger agents of cluster headache include certain medication that is commonly prescribed for treatment of cardiac diseases such as nitro-glycerine, disturbed sleep and change is sleep – wake pattern.

Cluster headache is associated with the following risk factors:

  • Age: Though cluster headache can occur at any age; it is more common between the ages of 20 to 50 years.
  • Sex: Studies have shown that cluster headache is more common among men than women.
  • Smoking: People who smoke have higher chances of developing cluster headache than non-smokers.
  • Alcohol Consumption: Excessive intake of alcoholic beverages increases the risk of developing cluster headache.
  • Family History: Genetics or known family history of cluster headache also acts as a risk factor.

The onset of cluster headache is generally sudden and the symptoms appear without any prior notice. However in certain cases, it has been noticed that migraine like symptoms such as nausea and aura may occur before the cluster headache begins. The affected person is usually in extreme discomfort and often seen pacing up and down or they are seen sitting and rocking back and forth to ease themselves.

How Long Does a Cluster Headache Last For?

Cluster headache are episodic in nature and can last from 15 minutes to 3 hours and in some cases it may last from 6 weeks to 12 weeks. There are cases, where the episodes last for a year or more with phases of pain free episodes of around 12 months. Sometimes, the pain free episodes of cluster headache are only for a month or less. The frequency of cluster headache is generally constant and often periodic. They may appear at particular season every year such as every spring or every fall. A cluster headache episode generally has the following characteristic:

  • Frequent episodes of headache that occur several times a day on a daily basis.
  • Episodes of cluster headache attack may last from 15 minutes to 3 hours or even longer at times.
  • These attacks generally follow a similar pattern and it is usually experienced at around the same time.
  • In a large number of cases, the cluster headache episode is experienced at night usually after 1 to 2 hours after sleeping.
  • As the episodes of pain come to an end, the patient feels energy deprived and exhausted even though he or she may be in a pain free state.

Prevalence Rate of Cluster Headache

As compared with classic migraine, incidence of cluster headache is very low. It has been estimated that in the United States, the prevalence rate of cluster headache is about 0.4 % in males and about 0.08% in females.


Cluster headache is a rare type of headache that is generally associated with excruciating pain and discomfort over one side of the head. These bouts of headache generally occur periodically and they may last from 15 minutes to 3 hours. The episodes may occur on a daily basis, monthly basis or yearly basis. They generally follow a particular pattern which varies from person to person. Cluster headache is not life threatening; however, the episodes can last for prolong period of time leaving the patient exhausted and weak. It is thus necessary to understand the severity of the condition and seek medical help at the earliest.

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Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 8, 2017

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