Misdiagnosis common with cluster headaches

July 8, 2011 2:21:31 PM PDT
The summer starts with the year's longest day, which can also start a stabbing pain behind the eye for people with cluster headaches. The control of the body's clock may be the reason behind this.

People often say that cluster headaches are the worst pain they have ever had. In fact, some sufferers call them "suicide headaches", because they would rather die than have another one. Cluster headaches strike only about a couple percent of headache sufferers, but the few who have them would much rather have something else.

"It's an acute stabbing pain, like a knife behind your eye," said Walter Beal, a cluster headaches patient .

To deal with the pain, Beal places a cold soda can over his eye and his scalp.

Also, for former firefighter and cluster headache sufferer Robert Drain, agitation came with the headaches.

"I would become anxious, and I would want to move; just get up and move around," Drain said.

Both men are in the small minority of people with cluster headaches. They are called "cluster headaches" because in the summer and in the winter, sufferers get these head-bangers for a few weeks only. In clusters, these headaches can happen daily, or several times a day.

Excruciating pain often behind one eye, tearing eyes, a runny nose and a drooping eyelid are the hallmarks of cluster headaches.

"Unlike migraines, which build up over hours, cluster headaches peak very rapidly within five to fifteen minutes. They come on like being hit over the head with a baseball bat," said Dr. Brian Grosberg, of Montefiore Medical Center.

The pacing also sets cluster headaches apart from migraines, when patients just want to lie down and not move.

A pea-sized structure in the brain called the hypothalamus controls your body clock. For unknown reasons, seasons and even daylight savings time changes trigger the onset of the headache.

Misdiagnosis is common with cluster headaches because there may be side effects of a runny nose, watery eyes and headaches. They can often be diagnosed as allergies in the summer or sinus infections in the winter.

With the right diagnosis, treatments such as injectable drugs can abort the headache. Even just breathing one hundred percent oxygen can help until the injections or other drugs take hold. Dr. Grosberg's treatments worked well for Walter Beal.

"I don't get the ones that break through the medications any more...it changed my life completely," Beal stated.

Beal also said that his pain was so bad that he wouldn't wish them on his worst enemy. One of Dr. Grosberg's patients says the headaches are like giving birth to one hundred babies without anesthesia. Dr. Grosberg advises you to see your doctor for these kinds of symptoms, and expect to be referred to a headache specialist.