Cluster Headache vs. Migraine: What Are the Differences?

Migraine headaches are one of the world’s most common health conditions. It’s also the world’s most common neurological disease. In fact, 1 billion people worldwide suffer from migraines.

Many people who develop migraine headaches confuse their condition with cluster headaches, though. What is the difference between a cluster headache vs. migraine? Keep reading to find out.

After reading this cluster headache/migraine guide, you can determine which you’re experiencing. Then, you can visit the right specialist to ease your pain.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about these neurological pains today!

What is a Cluster Headache or Migraine?

First, let’s answer the questions that likely brought you here.

What is a cluster headache, exactly?

A cluster headache is a painful headache that occurs for short periods of time. They can recur over a period of a few months. However, some people experience a remission of a few years.

Most people get a cluster headache around the same time or season each year.

What is a migraine, then? Migraines feature severe throbbing and pain that usually affects one side of the head.

When comparing a cluster headache vs. migraine, it helps to view the similarities. Both cause severe pain to the head around the forehead. However, they often feel and act differently.

Migraines are also more common. Though migraines affect millions of Americans, cluster headaches are rare. They only impact about one in every 1,000 people.

Potential Triggers

If you’re not sure if you have a cluster headache vs. migraine, consider what’s causing your symptoms.

Different triggers can cause a migraine, including environmental factors, genetics, and hormones. A few of these triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Medications
  • Alcohol use
  • Sensory or light stimuli
  • Physical activity or exertion
  • Food or food additives
  • Hormone changes
  • Relaxing after stressful situations

Scientists still aren’t quite sure about cluster headache causes, though. It’s possible a nerve in the face causes intense pressure around the eyes.

Since cluster headaches usually occur during specific seasons, they’re often mistaken as seasonal allergies.

Risk Factors

Certain risk factors might increase the chances you’ll develop a cluster headache vs. migraine.

For example, potential cluster headache risk factors can include your gender, age, and smoking. Most people experience cluster headaches between the ages of 20 and 50. Men experience cluster headaches more often.

Migraine risk factors include hormonal changes, family history, gender, and age.

Migraines can start during adolescence. Symptoms could peak in your 30s.

Women are more likely to suffer from migraines than men.

If your family has a history of migraines, you’re at a higher risk of experiencing them yourself.

Symptoms

Comparing the symptoms between these two conditions can help you determine if you’re experiencing cluster headaches or migraines.

The symptoms that usually occur with migraines include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Light sensitivity
  • Temporary loss of vision

Your symptoms could last up to 72 hours.

If you have a cluster headache, you might experience:

  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Severe pain on one side of the head
  • Sudden onset of pain

With a cluster headache, symptoms are usually short in duration. Remember, they can recur over time, though. Your symptoms might wake you up during the night as well.

If these symptoms sound familiar, consider visiting a specialist for migraine or cluster headache treatment.

Diagnosis

It’s likely a neurologist will diagnose whether you have a cluster headache vs. migraine. You can schedule a neurological and physical exam for an official diagnosis.

During the appointment, the doctor will gather your full medical and family history. They’ll evaluate your symptoms and possibly order additional tests.

For example, they might schedule blood tests. Blood tests could determine if infections or toxins in your blood are causing your symptoms.

Your doctor might request an MRI or CT scan, too. These imaging tests will produce detailed images of your brain. They could help determine if you have a brain tumor or other conditions.

Otherwise, your doctor might request a lumbar puncture (spinal tap). This test can rule out an infection in the brain.

Treatments

There’s not yet a cure for migraines or cluster headaches. Rather, the goal of treatment is to prevent your symptoms as much as possible. Your treatment plan can vary based on the condition.

For example, your doctor might recommend medication to relieve your pain.

You can take medications when you feel an attack come on to reduce the pain your experience. For mild migraines, you can take over-the-counter ibuprofen or aspirin. For severe migraines, you’ll need prescription medication.

For example, your doctor might prescribe Ergots, Triptans, or other medications.

Your doctor might also recommend options to prevent future attacks. However, not all patients are ideal candidates for prevention medication. Ideal candidates usually find pain relief medications don’t work.

You’re also an ideal patient for this medication if you have four or more migraines a month.

Your doctor might prescribe Botox, antidepressants, or anti-seizure medications.

Treatments for cluster headaches, on the other hand, can include:

  • Dihydroergotamine
  • Local anesthetics
  • Octreotide
  • Triptans
  • Pure oxygen treatment

Your doctor might also recommend different preventative treatments based on your symptoms and needs. They can help you determine which form of treatment is ideal for your situation.

For example, preventative treatments could include corticosteroids or a nerve block. Melatonin, calcium channel blockers, or lithium carbonate might help as well.

Schedule a consultation appointment with a specialist to determine which course of treatment is right for you.

Deciphering Aches: The Difference Between a Cluster Headache vs. Migraine

To recap, what is the difference between a cluster headache vs. migraine? A cluster headache usually comes on suddenly and only lasts for a short period of time. Migraines feature severe throbbing pain and affect one side of the head.

You can determine if you’re experiencing cluster headaches or migraines by visiting a specialist. Once they diagnose your condition, you can begin treatment to prevent or minimize your symptoms.

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