There is a complex association between sleep disorders and cluster headaches. If you have a sleep disorder and suffer from cluster headaches, addressing your sleep issues can help you have fewer headaches.
What is a Cluster Headache?
A cluster headache is a rare headache disorder characterized by severe pain on one side of the head. The pain tends to be especially severe around the eye. Some sufferers describe the sensation as a burning pain; others report it feels as though a hot poker or an ice pick is stabbing them in the eye. This pain may be accompanied by restlessness, agitation, sweating, flushing, a runny nose, or eye irritation.
Cluster headaches tend to reoccur at specific intervals over several weeks or months, hence the term cluster. Each attack lasts for approximately 15 to 180 minutes. These attacks can occur as many as eight times in one day, or as infrequently once every other day. The average cluster headache sufferer endures two headache attacks per day over a period of four to six weeks.
Cluster headache attack periods are separated by periods of remission that last for months or even years. During these remission periods, the headaches do not occur. In patients with episodic cluster headaches, attack periods last anywhere from one week to one year, and remission periods last for at least one month. Patients with chronic cluster headaches experience attacks for more than a year without remission, or with periods of remission lasting less than a month.
The pain that occurs with a cluster headache is widely considered the most severe form of headache pain. Some doctors even consider it one of the most painful of all medical conditions. Cluster headaches are sometimes referred to as “suicide headaches,” because the pain is so intense some people have gone so far as to commit suicide to escape the unbearable agony of a cluster headache.
Cluster Headaches and Sleep
Cluster headaches typically strike at night, often during sleep. The pain can be so intense it wakes the sleeper. Experts believe these attacks are triggered when the brain is transitioning from REM to non-REM sleep—dreaming occurs during REM sleep.
Cluster Headaches and Sleep Disorders: What’s the Connection?
Multiple sleep disorders are linked to cluster headache attacks. Obstructive sleep apnea often co-occurs with cluster headaches. Narcolepsy and insomnia can also influence cluster headaches.
In some patients, treating these sleep disorders can make cluster headache attacks less frequent and less severe.
Poor sleep quality significantly increases an individual’s risk of experiencing a cluster headache attack. Disruptions to a person’s normal sleep schedule also make cluster headaches more likely.
The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls the body’s circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle. This same region of the brain is also believed to play a role in triggering cluster headaches. Therefore, maintaining a regular sleep schedule and consistently getting quality sleep can reduce the incidence of cluster headache attacks.
Sleep disorders negatively impact sleep quality and interrupt the sleep cycle. As a result, individuals who suffer from sleep disorders, or poor sleep in general, tend to be more prone to cluster headaches.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Cluster Headaches
Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common sleep disorder in adults. Patients with sleep apnea intermittently stop breathing while asleep. The throat muscles block the passage of air in and out of the lungs. One of the most obvious signs of sleep apnea is heavy snoring.
Patients with sleep apnea sometimes wake up in the night choking or gasping for air. Their snoring is frequently loud enough that it interrupts both their sleep and the sleep of their partners. Their sleep is so disrupted they often wake up feeling irritable, tired, and sore. They might be so tired during the day they have trouble staying awake; falling asleep at the wheel is a potential danger.
Sleep apnea can cause cluster headache attacks or make existing attacks worse.
Treating Sleep Disorders and Cluster Headaches
Improved sleep quality can reduce the frequency and severity of cluster headache attacks. To achieve better sleep, it is often necessary to address the underlying issues that prevent a patient from getting adequate rest.
Obstructive sleep apnea can be treated using CPAP and EPAP devices.
Theravent is a small EPAP device placed over the nostrils before bed. The device exerts a gentle pressure to keep the airways open and allow for proper breathing. This is a natural way to reduce or eliminate snoring.
CPAP devices are often prescribed for the treatment of obstructive sleep apnea. These devices continually exert air pressure in the throat to keep the airways open and allow for normal breathing.
Unfortunately, CPAP devices require a machine and a mask, making them uncomfortable and inconvenient. CPAP devices can also produce unpleasant side effects that are not experienced with EPAP devices.
Although both CPAP and EPAP devices help patients with sleep apnea breathe better during sleep, some patients prefer the ease and simplicity of EPAP devices like Theravent.
Even patients who don’t have sleep apnea might experience sleep issues due to excessive snoring. Snoring can prevent both you and your bedmate from getting a refreshing, full night of rest. Interrupted sleep due to snoring can lead to a host of unpleasant side effects including daytime sleepiness, irritability, difficulty concentrating during the day, and headaches, including excruciating cluster headaches.
To reduce snoring and improve the quality of your sleep, you can try anti-snoring products like nasal strips, specially designed pillows, mouthpieces, chinstraps, salt machines, or nasal dilators.