The first day of summer is fast approaching (Saturday!), and most of us are looking forward to longer days and warmer temperatures. But the solstice can also mean debilitating pain and frustration for the nearly one million Americans who suffer frp, cluster headaches. Because these headaches often strike during seasonal changes, experts say that now's the time to be on the lookout for symptoms, and vigilant about prevention.
Unlike tension headaches or migraines, cluster headaches tend to occur one after another, lasting 30 minutes to three hours a piece, for up to 12 weeks at a time. (Periods of remission can last for months or years between attacks.) They're caused by a neurological disorder, says Brian M. Grosberg, M.D., director of the headache center at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, and are characterized by severe pain behind or around the eye.
They're so painful, in fact, that they are also known as 'suicide' headaches. "Patients often share how these headaches impact their personal and professional lives, and how the sensation is so severe they feel at the end of their rope," Grosberg explains.
Cluster headaches tend to flare up around the longest and shortest days of the year, says Grosberg; although researchers aren't sure why, they think it has to do with the disorder's circadian rhythmicity. "We know that cluster headaches are at least partially regulated by the hypothalamus, which is responsible for our sleep wake cycles and interactions with photosensitivity." Therefore, waking up earlier or later—or taking in more or less light during the day—may trigger a relapse, he explains.
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You might think that anyone who has such a severe condition clearly knows it. But actually, Grosberg says, because of their seasonality—and because they can be accompanied by symptoms like eye watering and nasal congestion—they are often misdiagnosed as sinus headaches.
Cluster headaches affect less than one percent of the population, and they're much more common in men than women. For those who are diagnosed with the condition, there are some ways to prevent or minimize symptoms, such as avoiding smoke and alcohol, taking prescription medication, and breathing in pure oxygen during an attack.
For most of us, the shift to warmer weather should be relatively painless—though we may find that we're suffering from other (less severe) types of headaches due to seasonal issues like allergies, heat, dehydration, and overexertion. If you're predisposed to headaches of any type, Grosberg recommends being prepared this summer: Protect yourself from the sun with a wide-brimmed hat and SPF, always have a bottle of water handy, try to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule, and know your triggers (such as alcohol, stress, and certain types of food). Now, bring on that solstice!