Some might think the two conditions are similar, but in reality, they are quite different. Migraines and cluster headaches have different symptoms and causes as well as require different treatments. Migraines are more common because they occur more frequently than cluster headaches. They are quoted as a general term to describe intense headaches in the media. According to the National Headache Foundation and American College of Physicians, more than 37 million Americans suffer from migraines and cluster headaches affect less than 1 million Americans.
Here are a couple questions to help you distinguish between the two headaches.
- Do you experience pulsating pain or pain on one side of the head?
People suffering from migraines often experience symptoms such as light and sound sensitivity, nausea, pulsating pain, and vomiting. Moreover, some can predict the onset of a migraine since the majority of sufferers experience visual disturbances (aura), such as zigzag lines, a brief loss of vision, or flashing lights.
On the other hand, people suffering from cluster headaches generally feel pain suddenly on one side of the head accompanied by a runny nose and/or a watery eye on the same side of the pain. Some may also experience red eyes, a droopy eyelid, swelling around the eye, and extreme sweating. Due to these symptoms, people often confuse cluster headaches with sinus headaches.
- Does the onset occur in the morning or at night?
Other differences lie in the causes and duration of each headache type. Hormonal imbalances are thought to play a key role in migraines, which explains the higher prevalence in women since they experience higher hormonal fluctuation. Other migraine triggers include abnormalities in sleep, weather, anxiety, depression, diet, stress, sudden noises or smells, bright lights, low blood sugar, and medication. Migraines occur mainly in the morning, and some sufferers can foresee the onset after milestone triggers.
On the contrary, studies suggest abnormal sleeping cycles might trigger of a cluster headache. These sudden headaches come in “clusters” intensifying five to ten minutes after the onset, and last at that intensity for up to three hours. Cluster headaches are shorter than migraines and sufferers tend to get these headaches one to three times a day. Most sufferers experience symptoms at night.
Interestingly, studies show that alcohol, smoking, head trauma, and genetic factors may trigger the onset of both types.
Now that you know the difference, treatment options for migraines and cluster headaches
Preventive treatments for both types of headaches rely on rescue medications at the start of a headache to keep the pain under control. Migraine medications include beta blockers, anti-seizure drugs, and antidepressants usually taken in pill form.
For cluster headaches, calcium channel blockers, non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation, antipsychotic drugs as well as high-flow oxygen and injectable triptans are used. These types of medication are often sprayed or injected to counter the severe bouts of intense pain. The high-flow oxygen mask receives the fastest results. Extreme cases of cluster headaches require surgery or electrical stimulation.
Learning to distinguish between different headache symptoms is a crucial part of therapy. There are many types of headaches with numerous different causes. It is always a good idea to consult a doctor to rule out other possible complications, such as a stroke or an internal injury.
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Bissan is an independent researcher and science writer with particular interests in microbiology, health, and psychology. She graduated from the University of Houston with a concentration in biology and contemplating further graduate studies in the field. Besides science, Bissan is an international fine artist from Houston, Texas who loves making exhibitions and artwork linking art and science.