Cluster Headache Vs. Migraine 

By Dr. Pallavi Sharma

Table of Contents


Migraine and cluster headaches are both painful, common disorders that affect over 100 million people worldwide. But they’re not the same!

While both can be debilitating, migraines are typically a temporary condition. They usually come in waves and can last from minutes to days, but they’re typically not chronic or disabling. Migraine sufferers might feel tired, but they’re more likely to feel sick than dizzy or lightheaded.

Cases of cluster headaches tend to be chronic, debilitating, and sometimes even life-threatening. These headaches occur in a group of people at the same time and place every month (or less often).

Headache Types

There are primary and secondary headaches.

A primary headache is a headache that has no direct underlying cause for headaches.

Secondary headaches have an underlying cause for headaches.

Types of Primary Headaches

Tension Headaches

  • Tension-type headaches often feel like a tight band around your head.
  • This pain often accompanies neck pain and tension.
  • The duration of the headache may last from a few hours to days.


  • A migraine is a primary headache that doesn’t have an obvious known cause.
  • It is a throbbing, pulsating type of headache that can persist for hours or days.
  • It is associated with nausea and vomiting and increases light and sound sensitivity.

Cluster Headache

  • A cluster headache is similar to a migraine, but it’s different in some ways.
  • -A cluster headache usually involves sudden, intense unilateral head pain and often lasts for hours at a time.
  • The pain can feel like an electric shock that travels from your head to the back of your neck to one side of your face and back again.
  • Cluster headaches are often accompanied by excruciating eye pain on the same side.
  • This headache appears in clusters with a brief remission period of hours to days.

What is a Migraine?

Migraine is a common and often debilitating condition. It affects women more than men, and people of all ages can be affected. There are several migraine triggers that might differ from person to person.

Migraine symptoms can be mild or severe and include,

  • throbbing type of headache
  • nausea or vomiting
  • photophobia (sensitivity to light)
  • tearing or throbbing in one eye or both eyes
  • neck stiffness and pain

Migraine has four stages


This may last from 15 minutes to several hours before actual symptoms occur.

The patient may experience nausea, vomiting, and increased sensitivity to the environment.


This phase has a visual disturbance that lasts from a few seconds to minutes before the onset of pain.

The aura can be tactile, auditory, or motor.

Headache phase

This occurs when the brain has been damaged by the migraine and reacts by causing intense pain on one side of the head or face and nausea or light sensitivity on the other side of the head or body.

Postdrome phase

This phase follows immediately after the headache phase and can last from three to eight hours depending on how severe your migraine was (and how much medication you took).

The patient will experience fatigue, drowsiness, and nausea for days.

Migraine Triggers

You probably know that migraines are triggered by a variety of factors, but here are some of the most common ones:

  • Stress
  • Hunger
  • Excessive heat or cold
  • Too much caffeine
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol, and being under the influence of other drugs (including prescription drugs)
  • Foods (cheeses, chocolates, processed meat etc.)
  • Hormonal changes
  • Skipping meals
  • Caffeine
  • Bright lights or loud noises
  • Sleep disorders
  • Barometric changes in the environment

How to Diagnose Migraine?

Migraine can be diagnosed with a detailed history. It is characterized by throbbing pain on one side of the head, usually the left side, with or without nausea and sensitivity to light, sound, and smell.

Migraine is a condition in which a person experiences an intense headache that can last from 30 minutes to 72 hours, and it has four stages.

The doctor may require additional tests depending on your detailed history and will order a CT or an MRI to rule out any sinister pathology.

Treatment for Migraine

Migraine treatments include medications such as triptans, anti-depressants, anti-epileptic drugs, beta-blockers, and painkillers.

The painkillers can be taken from pharmacies and there are NSAIDs (Ibuprofen, Naproxen), Acetaminophen, or Excedrin, which is the combination treatment of acetaminophen, caffeine in a low dose, and aspirin.

Physical therapy, behavioral therapy such as biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy, and acupuncture might be helpful.

  • Magnesium and riboflavin are supplements that are used as additional drugs in preventing migraines.
  • Migraine is often accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Antiemetic drugs too can help to reduce the debilitating symptoms of migraine.

Migraine Prevention Tips!

Migraine prevention is the best way to reduce the frequency and severity of these headaches.

Some people use preventive medications like beta blockers or antidepressants to prevent migraines, while others adopt a healthy lifestyle.

Tips to prevent migraines are

  • Getting enough sleep
  • Proper Hydration
  • Reducing stress
  • Breathing exercises and increasing physical exercise
  • Avoid skipping meals.
  • Sleep well
  • Avoid alcohol
  • Avoid changes in the environment (loud noises, strong odors, or bright lights).

What is a Cluster Headache?

A cluster headache is a type of headache that is characterized by severe pain around the eye and temple area. The pain can be excruciating and often lasts for hours or days.

The condition is called cluster headache because it usually comes in clusters or cycles. These clusters can last from weeks to months, and then they disappear for a while. There can be eight clusters in a row per day.

The incidence of cluster headaches is one in a thousand and more commonly seen among males. Though there are no specific triggers of cluster headaches, alcohol can trigger a cycle.

The cause of cluster headaches isn’t known, but it may be related to changes in the brain’s neurotransmitter levels.

Cluster headaches are classified as primary headaches, meaning they aren’t caused by another underlying pathology, such as a tumor or infection.

The most common treatment for cluster headaches is called triptan medication. This medication can often help stop the pain within 15 minutes of taking it.

Types of Cluster Headaches

Episodic Cluster Headache

Episodic cluster headaches occur in cycles that last from a few days to a couple of months, with periods of remission in between cycles.

Typically, the pain-free period lasts about three months.

Chronic Cluster Headache

Chronic cluster headaches occur every day or nearly every day for at least one year without remission periods.

Treatment of Cluster Headaches

The treatment for cluster headaches varies depending on the severity of the pain and the frequency of attacks.

The most common treatments are painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and oxygen therapy.

Migraine vs. Cluster Headache

A cluster headache is a type of headache that is short, severe, and frequent. It usually occurs in cycles.

It can be accompanied by other symptoms such as drooping eyelids, tearing and red eyes, facial flushing, and sensitivity to light and sound.

The pain can be moderate or severe, and it often has a pulsating quality in migraine. It can cause nausea, vomiting, photophobia (sensitivity to light), phonophobia (sensitivity to sound), and an aura (flashing lights), which is not seen in cluster headaches.

When to See the Medical Professional

  • If you are having eight clusters per day, you don’t have to suffer and can get medical advice.
  • If the headaches are accompanied by fever, neck stiffness, one-sided body weakness, or sensory impairment, there may be a need to conduct additional testing such as CT or MRI to rule out other pathologies.
  • If you are having vertigo or dizziness, that might indicate a cardiac event.

TeleHealthDoc articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Dr. Pallavi Sharma

Dr. Pallavi Sharma is one of Melbourne’s best, well respected cosmetic doctors and aims to provide longstanding anti-aging benefits for her clients. With over 11 years experience in Performing cosmetic procedures, Dr. Sharma has lectured medical professionals regarding cosmetic treatments and is heavily involved in providing up to date cosmetic treatments to her clients and friends.
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