People that suffer from cluster headaches describe the pain as an intense, concentrated pain, usually on one side of the head which can last for up to fifteen hours and strike several times a day, if not a week. Cluster headaches affect around 62,000 people living in the UK alone and the majority of sufferers are male smokers. It is not known what brings on these attacks but once they have started they notoriously difficult to shift. One theory of the origin of cluster headaches is that they result from abnormal brain activity, more specifically in the hippocampus, the region associated with memory retrieval and emotions. Studies have shown that cluster headaches are more prevalent in the spring and autumn months and with people who tend to drink alcohol frequently. They can also be triggered by extreme increases in temperature.
The typical way to treat these types of headaches would be to administer drugs, namely Sumatriptan, the well known migraine drug which works by reducing blood to the brain, or to apply high doses of corticosteroids and oxygen. In severe cases, patients may have to have an injection of an anaesthetic into the occipital nerve so that pain receptors do not transmit signals to the brain. All these remedies however are temporary at best and do not offer a permanent solution.
Finally, thanks to research conducted at the National Hospital for Neurology & Neurosurgery in London, a cure may have been found. The Occipital Nerve Stimulation (ONS) treatment works by concentrating on the occipital nerve but it does so by inserting two tiny electrodes into the back of the neck under a general anaesthetic, which requires an overnight stay. The electrodes are placed under each branch of the nerve and a small generator is then implanted into the skin of either the upper chest or the abdomen. This is connected by wires to the electrodes and is then switched on and the patient can control the current supplied by the generator by a small handheld device.
It is thought that by sending a higher than normal electrical signal to these nerves, brain activity can resume to its usual electrical output and the headaches decrease, or stop altogether. Some patients have the device activated all the time with a low signal generated to prevent an attack, whilst others prefer to utilise the device only when they get a headache, but results have proven successful in both cases. Research has shown that 80% of 150 patients with severe extreme headaches showed a positive result using the ONS, compared to others who took standard drugs. We may not see this treatment available on the NHS however for some time as it still has to be approved by the National Institute for Health & Clinical Excellence (NICE), but, in the meantime, if you are suffering from extremely painful cluster headaches, you can still get referred to the London Hospital.