For many people, summertime elicits fun images of swimming and barbecues, but those suffering from cluster headaches may find the change in season triggers the attacks, turning one of the year’s most anticipated seasons into a time of dread and pain.
Cluster headaches are the most rare form of headaches, according to Web MD, but they cause a great amount of pain and life disruption for the approximately one in 1,000 people who experience them. An expert at the Montefiore Headache Center calls them “suicide headaches” because they’re so painful and disruptive.
About 80% of people experience cluster headaches during a specific season, followed by a headache-free rest of the year. Meanwhile, about 20% of people suffer from the headaches all year, with as few as 14 headache-free days per year, according to WebMD.
What are cluster headaches?
Cluster headaches are headaches that develop one after another, usually one to three per day. They generally cause excruciating pain in the eye area, along with associated symptoms like eye watering, drooping eyelids, or swelling. Nasal congestion may also develop. Each cluster headache typically lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours.
The pain is usually one-sided and can be so severe that patients pace during an attack because they’re unable to sit still.
Cluster headaches are typically tied to seasons, with people developing the attacks for anywhere from two weeks to three months each year. And while migraines are more common in women, cluster headaches more commonly affect men.
Researchers aren’t sure what causes the headaches, but they’re linked to activity in a major nerve pathway known as the trigeminal-autonomic reflex pathway. This activity is triggered by the hypothalamus, an area of the brain important for hormone production. The hypothalamus also regulates the body’s circadian rhythm, the natural clock that tells us when it’s time to sleep and rise.
Cluster headaches’ link to the hypothalamus and the body’s natural clock may explain why patients often experience sudden, severe attacks at night. The headaches can cause more pain than migraines, but have a much shorter intensity. According to Mayo Clinic:
“The pain of a cluster headache is often described as sharp, penetrating, or burning. People with this condition say that the pain feels like a hot poker being stuck in the eye or that the eye is being pushed out of its socket.”
Because cluster headaches are so closely linked to seasons, they’re sometimes misdiagnosed as sinus headaches, according to Montefiore Headache Center, especially because similar symptoms like sinus congestion may be present. Proper diagnosing is essential to receive the proper treatment.
Summer may trigger cluster headaches
Several things happen during summer that contribute to cluster headaches.
At the most basic level, summer happens because of the Earth’s continued rotation around the sun. As the season transitions and the Earth turns, subsequent changes in gravity affect humans’ biological rhythms, which could trigger cluster headaches, according to NY Daily News.
Meanwhile, summer’s higher temperatures and changes in barometric pressure could also cause a cluster headache or other type of severe head pain, according to researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Scientists evaluated more than 7,000 headache sufferers and found high temperatures were a significant trigger for severe headaches. The study found that each increase of 9 degrees Fahrenheit was linked to a 7.5% increased risk for developing a severe headache. Low barometric pressure was also linked to an elevated headache risk, although not as extreme as high temperatures.
Longer daylight hours may also alter the circadian rhythm and trigger headaches, according to Everyday Health. Dr. MaryAnn Mays tells the website:
“It is probably the change in sleep cycles that sets off some seasonal headaches…Some people with cluster headaches are so sensitive to changes in daylight that they can predict the onset of their headaches almost to the exact day.”
How can cluster headaches be managed?
Although cluster headaches are linked to complicated nerves located deep within the brain, they’re influenced by lifestyle factors. That means patients are able to reduce the likelihood of an attack through specific behavior modifications.
Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption have been linked to cluster headaches. Knocking back a six-pack at the family picnic may seem like a fun idea, but reducing alcohol intake could help prevent a cluster headache from developing.
While overall high alcohol consumption may predispose a person to developing cluster headaches, even a small amount of liquor during the headache season could trigger the episodes, according to WebMD. This effect disappears during periods of remission, with alcohol not increasing the risk of a headache.
Drinking plenty of water and wearing high SPF while spending time in the sun can also help reduce cluster headache attacks, according to Shape magazine. Because the headaches are so closely tied to circadian rhythms, maintaining a regular sleeping and waking cycle, even though days are longer, may also help to keep a person headache free.
To help with sleep, some patients might take melatonin, a hormone available in pill form that helps people sleep. Although melatonin is widely available in drug stores without a prescription, talk with your doctor before taking any new supplements to make sure they don’t affect medications you’re taking or influence any other health concerns you may have.
Other headache triggers may include stress or specific foods. Keeping a headache diary, complete with foods eaten and stresses during the day can help a person identify individual triggers, Montefiore Headache Center recommends.
Another remedy that might be useful in the throes of a cluster headache is breathing in pure oxygen for 10 or 15 minutes. Research has also revealed that Botox injections may help patients find relief from pain, reports NY Daily News. The popular anti-wrinkle treatment freezes nerve activity, stopping cluster headaches at the source.
Finally, taking special medications known as calcium-channel blockers, often used to treat high-blood pressure, may also stop the cluster headaches from occurring.
Do you experience cluster headaches during the summer?
Image by Pavlina Jane via Flickr