Cluster F***


Yesterday, I woke up with a terrible headache. I’m beginning to think that I don’t have migraines but that I have cluster headaches. Cluster headaches are less common than migraine headache or tension headache, both of which I know I have, but some of the headaches are different and do not fit the regular symptoms of a migraine or tension headache. The pain of cluster headache is its defining and most dramatic feature. This pain comes on without warning (no forewarning symptoms such as the aura in classic migraine, which I do have before a migraine begins) and begins as a burning sensation deep in one eye.

The pain peaks in just a few minutes. People describe the feeling as having an ice pick driven through your eye. They use words such as “excruciating,” “explosive,” and “deep.” This stabbing eye pain carries with it a rapid electrical-shocklike element, which may last for a few seconds, and a deeper element that continues for a half-hour or longer. The pain almost always begins in my eye and always on one side of your face. Interestingly, for most people the pain stays on the same side of the face from cluster to cluster, while in a small minority, including myself. the pain switches to the opposite side during the next cluster.

There are two types of cluster headaches, episodic and chronic. Episodic cluster headaches occur regularly between one week and one year, followed by a headache free period of one month or more. Chronic cluster headaches occur regularly for longer than one year, followed by a headache free period that lasts for less than one month. Because of the frequency to which I have headaches, it could actually be either. I do go months without headaches that are like an ice pick driven through my eye, which could merely mean that I suffer from episodic cluster headaches but with the misfortune of also having tension, sinus, and migraine headaches in the intervals.

As the name suggests, the cluster headache exhibits a clustering of painful attacks over a period of many weeks. The pain of a cluster headache peaks in about five minutes and may last for an hour. Someone with a cluster headache may get several headaches a day for weeks at a time – perhaps months – usually interrupted by a pain-free period of variable length.

One of the reasons that I think I have been suffering from cluster headaches is because of one of the main triggers. Alcohol is one well known trigger of cluster headache, often bringing on the pain within an hour of drinking. In the past four to six months, every time I have drank alcohol, I have suffered from intense debilitating headaches that last for several days. These headaches usually come and go through the day. I haven’t had any alcohol with the exception of three different occasions in the last four months. It appears that a good white wine does not trigger them, but any other alcohol (including cheap white wine) does trigger these headaches. I guess my head is a tad bit of a wine snob.

Even if these headaches are cluster headaches, the treatment is only minimally different from migraine treatment. Doctors still recommend taking a class of drugs known as triptans, which I already have a prescription for the only one of the triptans I can take, Maxalt. The others often are not recommended for people with high blood pressure, and they have the nasty side effect of simulating a heart attack, that is tightness in the chest and a radiating pain down the arm. Maxalt has never caused the simulated heart attack but others have when I have tried them and believe it or not, it is much more uncomfortable than the migraine. Other treatments that have been proved effective, not for curing but for relieving the pain is breathing pure oxygen for short periods of time and opioid pain relievers.

I know this is a bit of an unorthodox post and doesn’t exactly fit into what I usually blog about, but when I research something, I’m like a dog with a bone or my cat Lucy when she has one of her toys, I just don’t want to let it go. After researching cluster headaches, I thought I’d share what I had found out, just in case any of my readers have suffered from similar headaches and would enjoy the information or might have some advice.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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