What Do Cluster Headaches Really Feel Like?

There is a reason why these headaches are called suicide headaches

Man laying on couch with tie over his eyes
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Cluster headaches are strikingly painful headaches and are usually more painful than migraine attacks. They can last up to three hours, but when you have one, the memory of the agony can remain for much longer.

While cluster headaches are rare, affecting less than one percent of the population, for those who do have them, the experience is unforgettable. In fact, people with cluster headaches use a variety of descriptive language to describe the pain of their headache, and some descriptions can't be reprinted here (you'd understand the reasons behind the colorful language if you'd ever experienced a cluster headache).

Here's some information on what cluster headaches feel like, along with additional descriptions from actual headache sufferers, so you can get some idea of what you might experience with a cluster headache.

Cluster Headaches Occur on One Side

When you have a cluster headache, you'll very likely experience it on only one side of your head. The pain will typically be centered on one eye, and that eye may tear or redden. It may also occur on the side of the eye, in the temple area.

Since cluster headaches often occur in the middle of the night, the pain will awaken you after you've been asleep for one or two hours. The unusual and yet consistent timing of cluster headaches makes experts believe that the hypothalamus is likely involved in their development. Your hypothalamus is a gland in our brain that regulates your sleep and circadian rhythm.

Perhaps more important to the diagnosis process, cluster headaches occur in, well, clusters.

That means you'll likely experience them at least every other day (and possibly as often as eight times each day) for weeks or months at a time. The headaches then will disappear (go into remission) until the next cluster.

Four out of five people who have been diagnosed with cluster headaches get them regularly in either the spring or the autumn, and they last four to 12 weeks at a time.

Researchers haven't fully identified a reason for this seasonal timing.

Descriptions of Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are exquisitely painful, so bad that it's nearly impossible to stay still while you're enduring one, which is why people often pace back and forth or walk outside during an attack. Some people even bang their heads against the wall in a futile effort to stop the pain (or at least to distract themselves from it).

People who get cluster headaches have described their pain as "feeling like my eye is going to explode." Some liken it to a hot poker being thrust through their eyeball, while others describe it more like a sword or a sharp screwdriver in the eye.

The pain is often accompanied by eye and/or nose discharge on the affected side. Other associated symptoms that may occur include eyelid swelling or drooping or sweating of the forehead. You may also notice the pupil of your eye (where the pain is located) getting smaller.

Some people who get cluster headaches say they intentionally don't own guns since they fear they'd be tempted to use one to stop the pain of a headache. One study found that a majority of people with cluster headaches have considered suicide—an alarming finding

A Word From Verywell

There are ways to stop or even prevent the pain of cluster headaches. If you suspect you may have cluster headaches, you should see your doctor immediately for a proper workup and diagnosis.

In addition, it's worthwhile to note that some people experience both cluster headaches and migraines, which can muddle the diagnosis and treatment plan. In this instance, it's best to see a headache specialist who has experiencing managing both headache disorders.

Your doctor, a neurologist or a headache specialist can prescribe medication or inhaled oxygen that may help avert your attacks entirely or stop an attack in its tracks once it has started.

You don't need to suffer through cluster headaches—there are effective treatments, so please seek out care.

Sources:

Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. "The International Classification of Headache Disorders: 3rd Edition (beta version)". Cephalalgia 2013;33(9):629-808.

Rozen TD et al. Cluster headache in the United States of America: demographics, clinical characteristics, triggers, suicidality, and personal burden. Headache. 2012 Jan;52(1):99-113.

The Migraine Trust. (n.d.) Cluster headaches.

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