Treatment of Cluster Headache

Cluster Headache is a very severe form of primary headache disorder with a population, one-year prevalence of about 0.1 %. Classified as a Trigeminal Autonomic Cephalagia (TAC) (1), it is probably the second most common form of primary headache encountered by neurologists or headache specialists. Cluster headache (CH) comes in two dominant forms: episodic CH, in which there are breaks of a month or more without therapy (80% of patients), and chronic CH in which such breaks are not seen (20% of patients) (2).

The medical management of CH may be divided into the treatment of the acute attacks and preventive treatment, aimed at suppressing attacks during a bout (3). Acute and preventive treatments are begun simultaneously at the onset of a cluster period. Exciting new approaches to treatment are under study, including non-invasive neuromodulation and monoclonal antibody approaches.

Due to the relative rarity of the condition, much of the treatment of CH has evolved from clinical experience rather than from randomized controlled trials (RCT). The designation of ‘(RCT)’ indicates that a controlled trial was performed. Many uses cited above are off-license, and prescribers are encouraged to examine the relevant information in this regard.

Acute Attack Treatment

Cluster headache attacks are typically short—from 30 to 180 minutes, and often peak rapidly—requiring a treatment with quick onset. Medication overuse headache can be seen in CH patients, typically if they have a co-existent history or family history of migraine, and when largely ineffective treatments are employed for acute attacks, such as oral triptans, acetaminophen, and opiate receptor agonist analgesics.


Inhaled oxygen,100% at ten to twelve L/min for 15 minutes is an effective, safe treatment of acute cluster headache (RCT).


Sumatriptan six mg subcutaneous, sumatriptan 20mg intranasal, and zolmitriptan five mg intranasal are effective in the acute treatment of cluster headache (RCT). Three doses of zolmitriptan in twenty-four hours are acceptable. There is no evidence to support the use of oral triptans in CH.


One mg IM is effective in the relief of acute attacks of CH. The intranasal form seems less effective, although some patients benefit from its use.


Topical lidocaine nasal drops may be used to treat acute attacks of CH. The patient lies supine with the head tilted backward toward the floor at 30 degrees, and turned to the side of the headache. A nasal dropper may be used and the dose (one mL of 4% lidocaine) repeated once after 15 minutes.

Preventive Treatments

The options for preventive treatment in CH are determined largely by the bout length, not by the designation of episodic versus chronic CH. Preventives may be regarded as short-term or long-term, based on how quickly they act and how long they can be safely used. Most experts would now favor verapamil as the first-line preventive treatment of choice, although for some patients with short bouts, limited courses of oral corticosteroids or a greater occipital nerve injection may be more appropriate. These shorter-term approaches can also be employed as transitional therapy as longer-term preventive doses are increased. In general terms, monotherapy in cluster headache is preferred—acknowledging that some patients, preferably managed by physicians with experience, will require more than one preventive.


Verapamil is more effective than placebo and compares favorably with lithium. Clinical practice clearly supports the need to use relatively high doses for CH, certainly higher than those used in cardiological indications. After obtaining a baseline EKG, start patients on 80 mg three times daily. Thereafter, the total daily dose is increased in increments of 80 mg every 10-14 days. An EKG is performed prior to each increment, and at least ten days after the dose change. The dose is increased until the cluster attacks are suppressed, side effects intervene, or the maximum dose of 960 mg daily is achieved. Side effects include constipation and leg swelling and gingival hyperplasia (patients must monitor dental hygiene closely).


Corticosteroids in the form of prednisone one mg/Kg up to 60 mg for four days, tapering the dose over three weeks is a well-accepted short-term preventive approach. It often stops the cluster period, and should be used no more than once a year to avoid aseptic necrosis.

Lithium Carbonate

Lithium carbonate is mainly used in chronic CH because of its side effects, although it is sometimes employed in the episodic variety. The usual dose of lithium is 600 mg to 900 mg per day in divided doses. Lithium levels should be obtained within the first week and periodically thereafter with target serum levels of 0.4 to 0.8 mEq/L. Neurotoxic effects include tremor, lethargy, slurred speech, blurred vision, confusion, nystagmus, ataxia, extrapyramidal signs, and seizures. Concomitant use of sodium-depleting diuretics should be avoided, as they may result in high lithium levels and neurotoxicity. Long-term effects such as hypothyroidism and renal complications must be monitored in patients who use lithium for extended periods of time. Polymorphonuclear leukocytosis is a common reaction to lithium and is often mistaken for occult infection. Concomitant use with indomethacin can increase the lithium level and must be avoided.


Topiramate is probably useful in the prevention of CH attacks. Typical doses are 100-200 mg daily, with the same adverse events as seen with its use in migraine.


Melatonin may be helpful in CH as a preventive, and there is one controlled trial demonstrating superiority to placebo. Doses of nine mg daily are typically used.

Other Preventive Agents

Other preventive agents include gabapentin (up to 3600 mg daily). Methysergide, once used with good effect, is no longer available. Divalproex is not effective (RCT).

Greater Occipital Nerve Injection

Injection of methylprednisolone (80 mg) with lidocaine (2%) into the area around the greater occipital nerve ipsilateral to the site of attack may result in remissions lasting from five to 73 days (RCT). This approach can be very helpful in shorter bouts, and can provide a general reduction in burden in more prolonged bouts and in chronic CH.

Neuromodulation and surgical approaches: This is an area of active development and transition. Invasive approaches are rapidly becoming unacceptable, as newer therapies with less morbidity are examined. Non-invasive, vagal nerve stimulation is currently being studied and shows promise.

Direct sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG) stimulation with an implantable device is also under investigation and again looks promising. Occipital nerve stimulation has been used and is effective for some patients, but should now be reconsidered in the light of results with the SPG device. Given potential morbidity and mortality, there is no place in current therapy for deep brain stimulation and certainly no place for destructive procedures, such a trigeminal ganglion thermocoagulation or trigeminal sensory root section.

Peter J Goadsby, MD, PhD, DSc
Headache Group
NIHR-Wellcome Trust King’s Clinical Research Facility, King’s College London UK, and
Department of Neurology, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco CA

Further Reading

  • Goadsby PJ, Lipton RB. A review of paroxysmal hemicranias, SUNCT syndrome and other short-lasting headaches with autonomic features, including new cases. Brain. 1997;120:193-209.
  • Lance JW, Goadsby PJ. Mechanism and Management of Headache. 7th ed. New York: Elsevier; 2005.
  • Nesbitt AD, Goadsby PJ. Cluster Headache. British Medical Journal. 2012;344:e2407.