What Do Painful Cluster Headaches Really Feel Like?

Sufferers describe the pain as 'a hot poker' or 'my eye exploding'

Man laying on couch with tie over his eyes
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Cluster headaches are the most horribly painful headaches ever, even 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.

Sufferers use a variety of descriptive language to describe their cluster headaches, some of which 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 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 only on one side of your head. The pain will be centered around one eye, and that eye may tear or redden. 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.

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 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. Sufferers pace back and forth or walk outside. Some 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.

Here's how one sufferer describes it: "Imagine shoving a metal pipe into your right eye until it reaches the top of the head. Now connect the pipe to a gas cylinder and increase the pressure inside your head until the eyeball is about to pop out. Finally, connect up a car battery to deliver electric shocks directly to your brain."

The pain is accompanied by eye and nose discharge on the affected side; another sufferer noted that his eye and nose actually gush during an attack.

Some people who get cluster headaches say they intentionally don't own guns, since they fear they'd be tempted to use a gun to stop the pain of the headache. One study found a majority of cluster headache sufferers have considered suicide.

What to Do If You Think You Have Cluster Headaches

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.

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.


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. Cluster Headaches fact sheet. Accessed Nov. 30, 2015.

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