Q & A Library

Print this page | Sign up for free e-bulletins
 | Bookmark This Page

Relieving the Worst Headaches?

How can one treat cluster headaches?

Answer (Published 11/6/2002)

A severe type of headache, cluster headaches are more common in men than women. They affect only one side of the head and typically occur at the same time every day for a period of weeks or months. Then, in most cases, the "cluster" period ends, leaving you headache-free for weeks, months, even years.

Related Weil Products
Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging - Your Online Guide to the Anti-Inflammatory Diet! - Everything you need to get started eating a healthful, satisfying diet is here - including eating and shopping guides, over 300 recipes, and an exclusive version of Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid! Start your 14-day free trial now - and start eating anti-inflammatory today!

Cluster headaches cause intense, throbbing pain usually concentrated around the eye and temple that typically lasts for 30 minutes to two hours. Symptoms often include nasal congestion on the affected side of the head. The affected eye may tear and redden, the pupil may become smaller and the eyelid may droop. One or more headaches may occur during the "cluster," always at the same times daily. This pattern suggests that the biological clock in the hypothalamus may be responsible, although no one knows for sure what causes this ailment. It doesn't run in families, but most affected men are heavy smokers. (Quitting doesn't stop the headaches immediately but may help over time.) Drinking alcohol during a "cluster" period can set off an immediate attack.

If you have cluster headaches, try to find a physician who has experience treating them. A number of approaches are available for both prevention and relief:

  • Oxygen: Inhaling 100 percent oxygen through a mask for 15 minutes relieves headaches in up to 80 percent of all cases.
  • Ergotamine: A prescription medication that narrows blood vessels; the suppository form works faster than pills.
  • Calcium channel blockers: Intended to treat high blood pressure, these drugs (particularly verapamil) also can help prevent cluster headaches.
  • Methysergide maleate: For prevention and relief.
  • Lithium carbonate: For headache prevention during "cluster" periods; dosage must be carefully adjusted to avoid side effects.
  • Prednisone: For both prevention and relief.

If these treatments don't help alone or in combination, surgery to disable the nerve that carries the pain signals may be recommended. It works in about two-thirds of all cases. Recently, researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona reported that an implanted device that stimulates the occipital nerve at the back of the head helped one patient remain headache-free for seven months. More research is needed to see how well it works for others. My recommendations would be, first, to eliminate all caffeine and to practice some relaxation technique such as biofeedback. I would also try acupuncture as a treatment and take supplemental magnesium as a preventive (400 milligrams daily).

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved Creative Commons Copyright Notice
A portion of the original material created by Weil Lifestyle on (specifically, all question and answer-type articles in the Dr. Weil Q&A Library) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Related Topics

The Weil Vitamin Advisor
Get your FREE personalized vitamin recommendation & supplement plan today!

Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging
Your Online Guide to the Anti-Inflammatory Diet. Start eating for your health - begin your free trial now.

Dr. Weil's Spontaneous Happiness
Achieve emotional well-being in just eight weeks! Start your 10-day free trial now!

Vitamin Library
Supplement your knowledge with Dr. Weil's essential vitamin facts. Learn why they are necessary and more.

Dr. Weil's Optimum Health Plan
Your 8-week plan to wellness.
Begin your journey today!

Dr. Weil's Head-to-Toe Wellness Guide
Your guide to natural health.
Use the Wellness Guide today!

Dr. Weil's Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Food Pyramid

Our interactive tool can help improve overall health through diet.

Condition Care Guide
Learn about health conditions from acne to vertigo, and Dr. Weil's view of the best treatment options for each.

Healthy Recipes
Discover a treasure trove of healthy, healing foods and creative, delicious ways to prepare them.

Q&A Library
Over 2,000 questions from you and their corresponding answers from Dr. Weil.

Copyright © 2015 Weil Lifestyle
Information on this web site is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional. You should not use the information on this web site for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing any medication or other treatment.

Ad Choice
Advertising Notice

This Site and third parties who place advertisements on this Site may collect and use information about your visits to this Site and other websites in order to provide advertisements about goods and services of interest to you. If you would like to obtain more information about these advertising practices and to make choices about online behavioral advertising, please click here