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August 01, 2016

HEALTH MATTERS SERIES: When the symptom is a headache, finding the right treatment shouldn’t be


According to the World Health Organization, it has been estimated that almost half of the adult population has had a headache at least once within the last year. Chronic headaches can be among the most mysterious of health conditions, indicating other conditions or sometimes simply existing as a standalone problem.

The high probability of misdiagnosis in headaches raises some serious issues. Headache disorders collectively, were the third highest cause worldwide of years lost due to disability. A difficulty in diagnosis leads to more suffering, money spent and time wasted. And in the case of headache disorders, this applies to an amazingly large population.

Let us familiarize ourselves with two different types of headache disorders with common symptoms: migraines and cluster headaches.

Cluster headaches occur in cyclical patterns or clusters, and they are one of the most painful types of headache. A cluster headache commonly awakens you in the middle of the night with intense pain in or around one eye on one side of your head. Bouts of frequent attacks, known as cluster periods, can last for several months, usually followed by remission periods when the headaches subside for many months, and sometimes even years.

A cluster headache strikes quickly, usually without warning, although it is sometimes preceded by migraine-like nausea and sensitivity to light and sound. Common signs and symptoms during a headache include:

  • Excruciating pain, generally situated in or around one eye
  • Restlessness
  • Excessive tearing
  • Redness and swelling in your eye on the affected side
  • Stuffy or runny nose on the affected side

Other migraine-like symptoms—including sensitivity to light and sound—can occur with a cluster headache, though usually on one side.

A migraine, on the other hand, is usually a severe headache felt as a throbbing pain at the front or side of the head. Some people also have other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and increased sensitivity to light or sound. The intensity and severity of migraines often cause misdiagnosis between the two types of headaches.

Cluster headaches are also sometimes confused with sinus headaches, further complicating the diagnosis.

The similarities between cluster headaches and migraines are subtle, but they are enough to make it difficult for your doctor to make a certain diagnosis. If you are experiencing severe, debilitating headaches, pay special attention to the symptoms you are experiencing and write them down so you can remember to tell your doctor. In addition to advocating for your own health, never be afraid to ask for a second opinion. It’s estimated that half of the affected population self-treats with over-the-counter medications, but a lot of the time this Band-Aid fix is not as effective long-term as an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.