Cluster Headache Ranked More Painful Than Childbirth

Jim Kling

February 12, 2021

Patients with cluster headache face a double whammy: Physicians too often fail to recognize it, and their condition is among the most severe and debilitating among headache types. In fact, a new survey of patients with cluster headache shows that they rank the pain as worse than most other painful experiences in life, including childbirth, passing of kidney stones, and pancreatitis, among others.

The study's comparison of cluster headaches to other common painful experiences can help nonsufferers relate to the experience, said Larry Schor, PhD, a coauthor of the paper. "Headache is a terrible word. Bee stings sting, burns burn. [A cluster headache] doesn't ache. It's a piercing intensity like you just can't believe," said Schor, professor of psychology at the University of West Georgia, Carrollton, and a cluster headache patient since he first experienced an attack at the age of 21.

The study was published in the January 2021 issue of Headache.

Ranking cluster headaches as worse than experiences such as childbirth or kidney stones is "kind of eye opening, and helps to describe the experience in terms that more people can relate to. I think it helps to share the experience of cluster headache more broadly, because we're in a situation where cluster headache remains underfunded, and we don't have enough treatments for it. I think one way to overcome that is to spread awareness of what this problem is, and the impact it has on human life," said Rashmi Halker Singh, MD, associate professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., and deputy editor of Headache. She was not involved in the study.

Schor called for physicians to consider cluster headache an emergency, because of the severity of pain and also the potential for suicidality. Treatments remain comparatively sparse, but high-flow oxygen can help some patients, and intranasal or intravenous triptans can treat acute pain. In 2018, the Food and Drug Administration approved galcanezumab (Eli Lilly) for prevention of episodic cluster headaches.

But cluster headaches are often misdiagnosed. For many patients, it takes more than a year or even as long as 5 years to get an accurate diagnosis, according to Schor. Women may be particularly vulnerable to misdiagnosis, because migraines are more common in women. It doesn't help that many neurologists are taught that cluster headache is primarily a male disease. "Because that idea is so ingrained, I think a lot of women who have cluster headache are probably missed and told they have migraine instead. There are a lot of women who have cluster headache, and that gender difference might not be as big a difference as we were initially taught. We need to do a better job of recognizing cluster headache to better understand what the true prevalence is," said Halker Singh.

She noted that patients with side-locked headache should be evaluated for cluster headache, and asked how long the pain lasts in the absence of medication. "Also ask about the presence of cranial autonomic symptoms, and if they occur in the context of headache pain, and if they are side-locked to the side of the headache. Those are important questions that can tease out cluster headache from other conditions," said Halker Singh.

For the survey, the researchers asked 1,604 patients with cluster headache patients to rate pain on a scale of 1 to 10. Cluster headache ranked highest at 9.7, then labor pain (7.2), pancreatitis (7.0), and nephrolithiasis (6.9). Cluster headache pain was ranked at 10.0 by 72.1% of respondents. Those reporting maximal pain or were more likely to have cranial autonomic features in comparison with patients who reported less pain, including conjunctival injection or lacrimation (91% versus 85%), eyelid edema (77% versus 66%), forehead/facial sweating (60% versus 49%), fullness in the ear (47% versus 35%), and miosis or ptosis (85% versus 75%). They had more frequent attacks (4.0 versus 3.5 per day), higher Hopelessness Depression Symptom Questionnaire scores (24.5 versus 21.1), and reduced effectiveness of calcium channel blockers (2.2 versus 2.5 on a 5-point Likert scale). They were more often female (34% versus 24%). (P < .001 for all).

The study received funding from Autonomic Technologies and Cluster Busters. Schor and Halker Singh had no relevant financial disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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