Cluster headache is a relatively common type of chronic headache that is unique in several ways. Cluster headaches occur in regular attacks—episodes or "clusters"—that may come on daily over a period of weeks, sometimes even months to a year. They may then disappear for a month or longer, only to recur. Cluster headaches are one of the most painful kinds of headache.

In contrast with migraine headaches, which are more common in women, cluster headaches affect men more often. This type of headache can occur at any age, but is more common during adolescence and middle age. A person suffering from cluster headaches may have several attacks per day, each lasting about 15 to 45 minutes or longer. For some patients, severe pain can last 2 hours.

Cluster headaches often come in the night or early morning hours, and may waken the patient from sleep. In most cases, the headache occurs at about the same time of the day. The pain of cluster headaches usually comes on suddenly and is centered around one eye, almost always on one side of the head. There can be nasal stuffiness and tearing of the eyes with the headache. The pain is excruciating for most people, often described as a knife or nail being driven into the head. Unlike with migraine headache, lying down often makes cluster headaches worse. Some people pace the floor and move about, unable to find any relief.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 01 Jan 2002

Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015