C to Cluster Headaches: The Most Painful Headaches You Could Ever Have

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 10/3/2017, 6:50 a.m.
Imagine waking up with a slight headache and finding that it lasts for decades. Or driving to work one day ...

By Susie East, CNN

(CNN) -- Imagine waking up with a slight headache and finding that it lasts for decades.

Or driving to work one day and instead of seeing traffic ahead, you see wavy lines, flashing lights and stars where the cars should be.

An even harsher reality for some is developing a headache that is so excruciating, they start banging their head against a wall, simply to provide some form of relief.

These are all real -- and harrowing -- forms of headaches felt by many people around the world, where the occurrence is much more than a bout of pain soon fixed with a painkiller.

Instead, these headaches can become a stressful, disabling health problem, and they come in more than 150 forms, from the unusual, like the "alarm clock" headache -- named after the fact that it wakes people up during the night -- to more well-known pains in the head, like a monthly migraine.

Headaches are among the most common disorders of the nervous system, with almost half of the adult population experiencing a headache in 2015, according to the World Health Organization. They are started by an irritation of nerve fibers in the linings of the brain, causing pain, according to Dr. Patrick D. Lyden, chairman of the neurology department at Cedars-Sinai in the United States.

But the exact cause or trigger of many headaches is often hard to pinpoint, connected to such factors as diet, emotions, genes or hormones.

Here's a rundown of some of the most common, most painful and most disabling headaches people face today.

A new level of pain

Cluster headaches are considered by many experts to be the most painful type of headache a person could ever experience, affecting an estimated one in 1,000 people in the United States.

The headache targets one side of the head, with excruciating pain building in a matter of minutes, occasionally causing a stuffy or runny nose as well as redness and swelling of the eye.

The cause of an attack is unclear, but they can run in the family and are sometimes triggered by alcohol or strong smells such as perfume or petrol.

Justin Dolan, 30, of Belleville, New Jersey, has been living with cluster headaches for about 15 years. He said the headaches are unpredictable, come on rapidly and feel like the worst imaginable form of pain.

"It can only be described as a dull, hot knife digging into the back of your eye constantly. When my body is in a cluster headache cycle, these attacks affect my life, my relationships and my work," he said.

"There's severe stabbing, knife-like pain, which could last up to around three hours in duration," said Dr. Teshamae Monteith, assistant professor of clinical neurology at the University of Miami and member of the American Academy of Neurology. "They can happen multiple times during the day, often right before you go to bed and sometimes in the middle of the night, at around 4 a.m."

Many who experience cluster headaches believe they never truly understood pain until these episodes began, Monteith said. "The 0-10 scale that's often used to quantify pain has to be rewritten for cluster headache patients," she said.