Migraines and Cluster Headaches: What Are The Differences?

Many people suffer from extreme headaches, and often make the assumption that what they are suffering from are migraines. However, there is another possibility lurking in the world of head pain, and it is known as a cluster headache. This article discusses the basics of migraines and cluster headaches, and then reviews the key differences between them.

Migraines are what comes to mind when many people think of severe headaches. A migraine is what is known as a vascular headache, meaning that it is caused by a combination of chemical release and blood vessel enlargement (known as vasodilation). When a person is suffering from a migraine, the temporal artery enlarges and stretches the nerves surrounding it. The stretching of these nerves leads to the aforementioned chemical release, which causes inflammation, pain, and often leads to further enlargement of the temporal artery. In turn, this leads to further chemical release, resulting in more pain. Migraine headaches typically involve a deep throbbing and pulsating pain. Migraines are often thought to be triggered by allergic reactions, exposure to bright lights, loud sounds, or certain odors/perfumes, physical or emotional stress, alcohol, caffeine, or skipping meals.

A cluster headache, or “suicide headache” as it is often referred to, has left authorities baffled as to its exact cause, but FMRI scans and other medical imaging have led researchers to suspect that the hypothalamus plays a role, as it shows increased activity during a cluster headache. A cluster bout typically involves a sharp, stabbing pain, typically felt behind the eye on the afflicted side. The triggers that are associated with cluster headaches include alcohol, nitroglycerin, hydrocarbons, heat, chocolate, and taking naps (which could interfere with sleep cycles and chemical release).

Although both migraines and clusters are “headaches”, they are vastly different afflictions to suffer from in some ways, and very similar in others.. A person suffering from cluster headaches will experience much more severe pain than the migraine sufferer. Both types of headaches are likely to hurt on only one side of the head, although a migraine may affect both sides of the head. A migraine sufferer will want to avoid light, sound, and remain as still as possible during an episode, and a cluster headache victim will also want to avoid light and sound, but a key difference is that a person suffering from a cluster headache will move around and writhe, seemingly unable to stay still. Cluster, unlike migraines, are typically not associated with a prodromal aura (visual disturbances before the headache). Cluster sufferers, like migraine sufferers tend to experience a lot of nausea, but unlike migraine sufferers, rarely vomit. Another key difference between the two types of headaches involves the eye-watering and the “nasal-release”. A migraine victim typically has neither of these symptoms, whereas a person suffering from a cluster headache will often experience a watering of the eye on the afflicted side of the head, along with a runny nose only on the afflicted side’s nostril.

An interesting difference is found when looking at the gender of who suffers from each type of headache. Males suffer more from cluster headaches four to seven times more than females, whereas females suffer more from migraines. In addition, a cluster headache typically peaks after about 45 minutes, whereas a migraine may last for hours at a time. Last, but not least, a migraine may arise at any time of day, but cluster headaches are known to begin at the same time, over and over.

Cluster pain is often assumed to be a migraine, and many medical personnel often assume that a cluster sufferer is a migraine sufferer, but the problem with this misdiagnosis is that migraine drugs and treatment regimens seem to be ineffectual when dealing with a cluster headache, therefore it is important to discern between them.

If you think you suffer from either of these ailments, it is best not to try and self-diagnose, and instead you should visit a physician or neurologist for a medical diagnosis and have an open conversation about your particular symptoms. Although both of these conditions are painful, they are manageable with the appropriate medical advice. In addition, there are a wide variety of websites and support groups to assist you in dealing with either ailment. If you know someone afflicted with either of these ailments, it is also a good idea to educate yourself in order to help provide guidance, support, and understanding for the sufferer.

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