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Cluster headache is characterised by repeated attacks of strictly unilateral pain in the orbital region associated with local autonomic symptoms or signs. The attacks are brief but of a very severe, almost excruciating intensity. For unknown reasons males are affected more often than females. Recent studies suggest that an autosomal dominant gene has a role in some families with cluster headache. Hormonal studies indicate a dysfunction in the central nervous system. Neuroimaging has revealed primary defects in the hypothalamic grey matter. Local homolateral dilatation in the intracranial segment of the internal carotid and ophthalmic arteries during attacks is the result of a generic neurovascular activation, probably mediated by trigeminal parasympathetic reflexes.
Sumatriptan 6mg subcutaneously is the drug of choice in the treatment of acute attacks. Inhalation of 100% oxygen can also be recommended. In the prophylactic treatment, verapamil is the first option. Other drugs that can be considered are corticosteroids, which may induce a remission of frequent, severe attacks, and lithium. Oral ergotamine tartrate may be sufficient for patients with night attacks and/or short, rather mild to moderately severe cluster headache periods. Third line drugs are serotonin inhibitors (methysergide and pizotifen) and valproic acid. Patients should be encouraged to keep headache diaries and be carefully instructed about the nature and treatment of the headaches. Alcohol can bring on extra attacks and should not be consumed during active periods of cluster headache.