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Cluster Headaches vs. Migraine: What’s the Difference?

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You: “My head hurts.”

Migraine: “Not I.”

Cluster headache: “Don’t look at me.”

You: “Not helpful! It has to be one of you!”

Distinguishing between cluster headaches — also referred to as “suicide headaches” — and migraine is crucial for people experiencing chronic head pain. While both conditions share the commonality of intense headaches, each disease has distinct features and separate diagnostic and treatment approaches.

Understanding Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are a type of primary headache disorder characterized by their rapid onset, excruciating intensity, and predictable patterns of occurrence. These headaches earned their name due to their tendency to occur in clusters or cycles, typically lasting several weeks to months, followed by periods of remission. They are aptly described as “suicide headaches” due to their severity, and are more commonly diagnosed in people who were assigned male at birth.

Key Symptoms of Cluster Headaches

  • Unilateral pain: Cluster headaches are typically experienced on one side of the head, often around the eye or temple. This unilateral pain is a hallmark feature that sets the disease apart from migraine, which can affect both sides of the head at the same time. The one-sided pain of cluster headaches can be so debilitating that people may describe it as an icepick being driven into their eye or temple.
  • Eye redness and watering: Many people with cluster headaches experience redness — swelling of the blood vessels in the white part of the eye — and excessive watering or tearing on the affected side. Both symptoms are visible to others and occur on the same side as the pain.
  • Restlessness and agitation: Unlike migraine attacks, which often make lying still in a dark, quiet room very appealing, those with cluster headaches tend to exhibit restlessness, pacing, and a need to move during an attack.

Understanding Migraine

Migraine, while also categorized as a primary headache disorder, encompasses a broader spectrum of symptoms when compared to cluster headaches. Migraine attacks that present with headache are characterized by recurrent moderate to severe head pain, often accompanied by other sensory disturbances.

Key Symptoms of Migraine

  • Prolonged pain duration: A migraine typically lasts much longer than a cluster headache, with attacks ranging from four to 72 hours if untreated.
  • Aura phases: Some individuals experience auras before the onset of head pain. Auras are temporary sensory disturbances, such as visual disturbances or tingling sensations, which warn of an impending migraine.
  • Nausea and vomiting: Migraine frequently causes gastrointestinal symptoms, including nausea and vomiting, which are not commonly associated with cluster headaches.

Direct Comparison: Cluster Headaches vs. Migraine

To facilitate a clear understanding of the differences between cluster headaches and migraine, here is a side-by-side comparison:

Feature Cluster Headaches Migraine
Pain Location Unilateral (one-sided) Usually unilateral, can be bilateral (both sides)
Pain Duration Short (15 minutes to three hours) Longer (four to 72 hours)
Pain Intensity Severe Moderate to severe
Associated Symptoms Eye redness, nasal congestion, restlessness Aura, nausea, vomiting, light sensitivity
Aura Phases Rare Common


Causes and Triggers: What Sets Them Apart

What triggers a migraine? What causes a cluster headache? Understanding their origins and “villain stories” can give us critical insights into treatment and symptom management for both neurologic diseases.

Cluster Headaches

Experts currently believe cluster headaches result from abnormalities in the hypothalamus. This tiny but powerful region, nestled deep within the brain, is pivotal in regulating various crucial bodily functions, including sleep-wake cycles, body temperature, and certain hormonal secretions. It is believed that abnormalities or dysregulation in the hypothalamus may contribute significantly to the onset and recurrence of cluster headaches.

Recent studies have shed light on the involvement of the trigeminal-autonomic reflex, a neural pathway connecting the trigeminal nerve (responsible for sensation in the face) and the autonomic nervous system (which controls involuntary bodily functions). Disruptions in this reflex arc are thought to play a central role in the pain and associated autonomic symptoms of cluster headaches.

Cluster headaches can run in families, suggesting a genetic link. If someone in your family has had cluster headaches, you may be at a higher risk of experiencing them, too. Scientists are studying specific genes to understand why some people are more likely to get them.

While the exact cause of cluster headaches is unclear, certain things can trigger or worsen them. These triggers may not affect everyone, but it’s important to be aware of them if you are prone to cluster headache attacks.

  • Alcohol consumption: Drinking alcohol, especially red wine, can be a strong catalyst. If you’re prone to these headaches, it’s advisable to be cautious and moderate in your alcohol intake.
  • Specific foods: Some foods like aged cheeses, processed meats with nitrates, and chocolate have been known to trigger cluster headaches in certain people. Keeping a record of your diet can help identify and avoid these potential triggers.
  • Strong odors: Certain strong smells from things like perfumes, paint fumes, or cigarette smoke can bring on cluster headaches.


There’s a strong genetic component to migraine as well. If a close family member experiences it, the likelihood of developing the disease increases. When it comes to triggers, here are the most common ones for migraine:

  • Hormones: In people assigned female at birth, shifts in estrogen and hormone levels during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause have been known to trigger migraine.
  • Diet: Certain foods and additives, such as aged cheeses, processed foods, artificial sweeteners like aspartame, and preservatives like MSG, can provoke migraine as well. The same is true for too much caffeine or alcohol.
  • Sleep: Irregular sleep patterns, either too much or too little, can contribute to attacks (similar to cluster headaches).
  • Stress: Stress and the resulting chemical reactions in the body can catalyze a migraine attack. Emotional states such as anxiety, depression, or heightened excitement can also play a role in triggering migraine.
  • Sensory input: Intense lights, loud noises, and strong odors can often spur a migraine, especially for people with sensory sensitivities.
  • Weather: Sudden shifts in barometric pressure or exposure to extreme temperatures (including humidity) can stir up symptoms.
  • Physical exertion: Intense physical activity or strain can sometimes lead to migraine, particularly in high-intensity sports or activities.

Diagnosing: Is It a Cluster Headache or a Migraine?

Seeking an accurate diagnosis is crucial for developing an effective treatment plan. Health care professionals employ specific criteria and assessments to differentiate between cluster headaches and migraine. It’s also important to note that some people may experience both types of headaches simultaneously, a condition known as “co-existing cluster headaches and migraine.”

Diagnostic Tests and Criteria

Patient history:

Detailed information about the patient’s headache history is a cornerstone of the diagnostic process. This includes the frequency, duration, and specific characteristics of the headaches. Additionally, noting any associated symptoms, such as nausea, light sensitivity, or visual disturbances, provides valuable insights for health care providers.

Physical examination:

A comprehensive physical examination, which may include a neurological assessment, is also standard. Health care professionals evaluate various aspects during this examination, including reflexes, muscle strength, and sensory responses. These assessments can reveal important clues that aid in distinguishing between cluster headaches and migraine.

International Headache Society’s criteria:

The International Headache Society has established widely accepted criteria as a standard framework for classifying and diagnosing various headache disorders, including cluster headaches and migraine. These criteria consider specific characteristics of the headaches, such as their duration, frequency, and associated symptoms. Health care professionals refer to these criteria to ensure accurate and consistent diagnoses.

Treatment Strategies for Cluster Headaches and Migraine

The treatment of cluster headaches and migraine involves both acute interventions to alleviate current symptoms and preventive measures to reduce the frequency and severity of future episodes.

Cluster Headaches

Acute Treatment:

  • Oxygen therapy: Inhaling pure oxygen through a mask at a high-flow rate can provide rapid relief during a cluster headache attack. Oxygen therapy helps alleviate the intense pain by increasing the concentration of oxygen in the bloodstream, which in turn eases the constriction of blood vessels in the brain, a key factor in the development of cluster headaches.
  • Triptans: Specific medications like sumatriptan can help abort cluster headache episodes. These drugs work by narrowing the blood vessels and inhibiting pain pathways in the brain.

Preventive Treatment:

  • Verapamil: A calcium channel blocker, verapamil, is commonly prescribed to reduce the frequency and intensity of cluster headaches. It helps to regulate blood pressure and relax blood vessels, which can be particularly beneficial in reducing the frequency and intensity of cluster headache episodes over an extended period.
  • Corticosteroids: Short courses of oral corticosteroids may be used to break a cluster cycle. These potent anti-inflammatory medications suppress inflammation in the brain and blood vessels, relieving the intense pain.


Acute Treatment:

  • Triptans: Triptans are a class of medications specifically designed to target migraine. In various forms, including pills, nasal sprays, and injections, triptans narrow blood vessels and inhibit pain pathways in the brain. By doing so, they alleviate the intense pain, as well as associated symptoms like nausea and sensitivity to light and sound, providing significant relief for individuals experiencing migraine.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): Over-the-counter NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, can be effective in milder migraine cases. These medications work by reducing inflammation and blocking pain signals, making them a valuable option for individuals with less severe migraine episodes.

Preventive Treatment:

  • Beta-blockers: Propranolol and other beta-blockers are commonly prescribed to individuals with frequent or severe migraine. These medications work by blocking the effects of stress hormones like adrenaline, which can trigger migraine attacks. Beta-blockers help prevent the onset of migraine attacks and reduce their severity by stabilizing blood vessels and reducing heart rate.
  • Antidepressants: Certain antidepressant medications, such as amitriptyline, can be effective in preventing migraine. These medications alter the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, which can help regulate pain signals and reduce the frequency of migraine attacks. Amitriptyline, in particular, is known for its effectiveness in migraine prevention.

Managing Daily Life: Tips for Each Condition

In addition to pharmaceutical interventions, there are other preventive measures — like lifestyle modifications that individuals with migraine and/or cluster headaches can incorporate into their treatment plans.

Cluster Headaches

  • Establish a regular sleep schedule: Consistent, adequate sleep is crucial for managing cluster headaches. Disruptions in sleep patterns can trigger attacks.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Engage in relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or mindfulness meditation. These techniques can help alleviate stress and tension, potentially reducing the frequency of cluster headaches.
  • Maintain consistent meal times: Regular, balanced meals can help stabilize blood sugar levels, which may contribute to headache management. Avoiding prolonged periods without food can be particularly important for individuals prone to cluster headaches.
  • Limit alcohol consumption: Given that alcohol is a known trigger for cluster headaches, individuals with this condition may benefit from minimizing or avoiding alcohol altogether, especially during cluster periods.


  • Identify and avoid triggers: Similar to cluster headaches, tracking and avoiding known triggers is essential in managing migraine.
  • Establish a routine sleep schedule: Consistency in sleep patterns, including regular bedtimes and wake times, can help regulate circadian rhythms and potentially reduce the occurrence of migraine.
  • Incorporate physical activity: Engage in regular, moderate exercise when able. Physical activity releases endorphins, which can help alleviate stress and reduce the frequency of attacks.
  • Manage screen time: Limiting excessive screen time, especially with electronic devices emitting bright light, may help reduce eye strain and potential triggers for migraine attacks.

Getty image by Cecilie Arcurs

Originally published: November 10, 2023
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