The Dangers of Cluster Headaches: The 'Suicide Headache'
Cluster headaches (also known as suicide headaches) are frequently cited as being the most painful medical condition known to man. Unlike regular headaches or migraines, cluster headaches only affect 0.1% of the world's population and are much more prevalent in men than in women. They occur sporadically and without warning, striking for extended periods of time before stopping for long periods of time and then returning. Attacks can last for as short as 10 minutes, to as long as 3 hours and occur regularly every day for a period of weeks.
How Painful Are They?
Cluster headaches are regarded by sufferers and doctors alike as the most excruciatingly painful experience one can suffer. Women who suffer from cluster headaches state almost without disagreement that they are more painful than childbirth, a fact made all the more terrifying by the frequency of their attacks. The pain is usually focused on only one side of the head, behind or around the eye and is described as "red hot poker" being stabbed into the eye. In particularly violent attacks the pain can extend all the way down to the neck and shoulders of the victim. Victims have been recorded as asking for any kind of treatment to relieve the pain, and many are placed on suicide watch lists because of their desperation in escaping the pain of a cluster headache attack (hence their morbid nickname, suicide headaches).
How are they treated?
Currently there is no known treatment for cluster headaches. Over the counter and prescription pain killers used on headaches and migraines have no effect on cluster headaches due to the intensity of the pain encountered. Oxygen treatments have shown some promise, allowing sufferers to inhale 100% oxygen at a rate of 10 - 15 litres per minute. Oxygen treatments can cute an attack off just as it is starting, but if the cluster headache reaches its peak, oxygen treatment is usually rendered useless. A few other treatments are suggested, but none have a high success rate.
Am I at risk?
Cluster headaches can be passed on genetically, so if someone in your family suffers from them there is a chance you could as well. They typically affect four times as many men as women, meaning males are much more likely to suffer from them. Cluster headaches strike most frequently between the ages of 20 and 50.
How do I know if I have them?
Cluster headaches can be easily mistaken for migraines or severe headaches if a patient is unaware of their existence as a medical condition. Due to their ambiguity and rarity, even some medical professionals may be unable to properly diagnose a case of cluster headaches. Even though they are not a health risk on their own, the distraction caused by the pain as well as the suicide risk means cluster headaches must be treated as a major medical emergency.
You can most easily detect cluster headaches by keeping a diary should you suspect you suffer from them. Cluster headaches strike regularly, usually at the same time every day during episodic attacks. Some people (10%) suffer from chronic cluster headaches, who get them every day for years. Most do not, and will suffer from them for a period of a few weeks before going into a painless remission for weeks, months or even years. During an episode, cluster headaches will occur at roughly the same time every day and even follow daylight savings time. Because of this (as well as metabolic abnormalities in sufferers) it is believed they are linked to the hypothalamus, the body's biological clock. However, diagnosis of the condition is still difficult.