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Cluster Headache vs Migraine Pain: What to Do When Your Head Hurts

Cluster Headache vs Migraine Pain: What to Do When Your Head Hurts

Some types of headaches, such as migraines, can cause a lot of pain and discomfort. Cluster headaches may be among the most uncomfortable. When comparing cluster headache vs migraine pain, we may consider how cluster headaches happen, and how to treat them.

Cluster headaches are a rare type of headache, and not everyone experiences it. Despite this, it is still important to know what causes these types of headaches, so that you can take steps to avoid experiencing them.

Just as important is knowing the different types of cluster headache treatment that you can do in order to lessen the pain.

What are cluster headaches?

Cluster headaches are a type of headache that causes a lot of pain.

Cluster headaches usually occur at night, and are typically isolated around one eye, or one side of the head. Despite causing extreme pain and discomfort, cluster headaches are not life-threatening.

Regardless, the pain that cluster headaches can cause can severely affect a person’s daily life.

One defining feature of cluster headaches is that they happen in what are known as cluster periods. These cluster periods can last from a few weeks, to even a few months.

Afterwards, they can disappear as quickly as they started.

Sometimes, people who suffer from cluster headaches do not experience it for months, or sometimes even years before it comes back.

Another trait of cluster headaches is that they usually happen to people aged between 20-40 years old. In addition, men are also more prone to experiencing cluster headaches compared to women.

Thankfully, aside from being non-threatening, cluster headaches are a rare type of headache. There are also different types of cluster headache treatment available, which can make the pain more bearable.

cluster headache vs migraine pain

What causes cluster headaches?

When it comes to the causes of cluster headaches, scientists are not quite sure why they happen.

However, scientists have found that the pain is mainly caused by the dilation of blood vessels in the head.

When these blood vessels dilate, they apply pressure on the trigeminal nerve, which is the largest nerve in the cranium. It is because of this pressure that people with cluster headaches experience severe pain.

They also found that the hypothalamus, or the part of the brain responsible for releasing hormones, regulating body temperature, and the sleep cycle, was active during cluster headache attacks. This means that the hypothalamus might have something to do with why cluster headaches occur.

Studies done on cluster headaches found that there might be a genetic component to this condition. Other factors that increased the risk of cluster headaches include not getting enough sleep, and smoking.

Cluster headache vs migraine pain: How are they different?

Both migraines and cluster headaches are usually unilateral. This means they occur on one side of the head during the period of attack. However pain may shift to the other side during a different attack.

In other ways, cluster headaches and migraines are different. These include:

Cluster headache vs migraine pain: Accompanying symptoms

Migraine headaches are commonly associated with light and sound sensitivity at the time of the attack.

Meanwhile, cluster headaches are most commonly associated with:

  • Lacrimation (eyes tearing up)
  • Eye redness
  • Nasal discharge
  • Nasal congestion

These only during the pain attack, and on the same side of the headache.

Cluster headache vs migraine pain: The type of pain is different

Cluster pain is usually described as a sharp, poking type of pain. Some even compared it to being stabbed with a hot poker in the eye!

Migraine pain is different in that it is a throbbing sort of pain that can linger for a while.

Cluster headache vs migraine pain: Cluster headaches tend to go away after a period of time

Despite being extremely painful types of headaches, cluster headaches, as the name implies, appear in clusters.

This means that a person suffering from cluster headaches might not experience them for months or even years.

In contrast, migraines can last for a long time, with some people starting to experience migraines from their teens well into adulthood.

Cluster headache vs migraine pain: Migraines can have triggers

One common trait of migraines is that they have triggers. For the most part, bright lights, certain drinks, hormonal changes, sleep changes, weather changes, etc. can all trigger a migraine. Migraines also usually have warning signs before the symptoms start to get worse.

In contrast, cluster headaches usually appear suddenly, and have no apparent triggers. They just appear all of a sudden, and can disappear just as fast.

What are the different types of cluster headache treatment?

Over-the-counter painkillers usually won’t do much for cluster headaches. This is because they usually take too long to take effect. This is why special forms of treatment are necessary.

Here are some ways that you can deal with cluster headaches:

  • Sumatriptan injections, which you yourself can inject twice a day. This is a type of prescription medicine that can help with cluster headaches.
  • Sumatriptan or zolmitriptan nasal spray is also available for those who do not want to inject the medicine.
  • Oxygen therapy is also a form of treatment for cluster headaches. Under oxygen therapy, you will breathe pure oxygen through a face mask.

These forms of treatment can usually relieve cluster headache pain within 15-30 minutes.

Key takeaway

Cluster headaches usually occur at night, and tend to be isolated around one side of the head. Despite being very painful, they are not life-threatening. Cluster headaches may be accompanied by teary eyes and nasal congestion.

Learn more about Headaches and Migraines here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.


Cluster Headache – NORD (National Organization for Rare Disorders), https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/cluster-headache/, Accessed August 20 2020

Cluster headache – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cluster-headache/symptoms-causes/syc-20352080, Accessed August 20 2020

Cluster headaches – NHS, https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cluster-headaches/, Accessed August 20 2020

Cluster headache – The Migraine Trust, https://www.migrainetrust.org/about-migraine/types-of-migraine/other-headache-disorders/cluster-headache/, Accessed August 20 2020

Cluster Headache – Headache Australia, https://headacheaustralia.org.au/headachetypes/cluster-headache/, Accessed August 20 2020

Cluster Headaches | Cedars-Sinai, https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/c/cluster-headaches.html, Accessed August 20 2020

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Written by Jan Alwyn Batara Updated Jul 07
Fact Checked by Hello Doctor Medical Panel