Cluster Headache vs. Migraine: What Are the Differences?

Headaches are a common ailment that affects millions of people worldwide. Among the various types of headaches, two of the most intense and debilitating are cluster headaches and migraines. While both can cause severe pain and discomfort, there are distinct differences between the two conditions.

Understanding these differences is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. This article will delve into the characteristics, symptoms, triggers, and treatment options for a cluster headache vs migraine.

What Is a Cluster Headache?

Cluster headaches are often called “suicide headaches” due to their excruciating pain. They are rare headaches affecting men, although women can also experience them. These occur in cyclical patterns or “clusters,” lasting for weeks or months, followed by periods of remission.


The pain caused by cluster headaches is severe and localized, usually on one side of the head, behind or around the eye. It often leads to restlessness and agitation. Additional symptoms include:

  • Redness of the affected eye
  • Swelling of the affected eye
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sweating
  • Facial sweating or flushing
  • Restlessness
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Sensitivity to sound (phonophobia)

These symptoms can last between 15 minutes and three hours, with multiple attacks occurring throughout the day.


Cluster headaches can be challenging to treat, and management focuses on relieving pain during an episode and reducing the frequency and intensity of future attacks. Oxygen therapy, in which pure oxygen is inhaled through a mask, is often effective in alleviating pain.

Triptans, a medication used for migraines, can also help treat cluster headaches. In some cases, preventive medications may be prescribed to reduce the frequency of cluster periods. This may include verapamil or corticosteroids.


Migraines are a neurological disorder characterized by recurrent, moderate to severe headaches. They are more common in women than men and can occur at any age.

Migraines are typically categorized into two types: migraine with and without aura. Aura refers to neurological symptoms that occur before or during a migraine attack.


Migraines are known for their pulsating or throbbing pain, which can affect one or both sides of the head. The pain is often accompanied by:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light (photophobia)
  • Sensitivity to sound (phonophobia)

Some individuals may experience warning signs or auras before the onset of a migraine. This can include visual disturbances, such as seeing flashing lights or zigzag lines and tingling or numbness in the face or limbs.


The migraine treatments focus on relieving symptoms during an attack and preventing future episodes. Over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help reduce mild to moderate migraines.

For more severe cases, prescription medications such as triptans or ergotamines may be necessary. 

Risk Factors for Migraines and Cluster Headaches

Migraines and cluster headaches can affect anyone, but certain risk factors increase the likelihood of experiencing these types of headaches. Some of the most common risk factors for cluster headache vs migraine include:

Family history

A family history of migraines or cluster headaches increases the risk of developing these conditions. Studies have shown that genetic factors play a role in creating these types of headaches.

Age and gender

Migraines are more common in women than in men, and the prevalence of migraines decreases with age. In contrast, cluster headaches are more common in men and typically develop in their 20s or 30s.

Hormonal changes

Hormonal changes can trigger migraines in some women. Migraines often occur just before or during menstruation, pregnancy, or menopause.


Stress can be a significant trigger for migraines and cluster headaches. High levels of stress can cause tension in the muscles of the head and neck, leading to headache pain.

Sleep disturbances

Both too much and too little sleep can trigger headaches. Irregular sleep patterns, such as shift work or jet lag, can also increase the risk of migraines and cluster headaches.

Environmental factors

Certain environmental factors can trigger migraines and cluster headaches. The following can all contribute to headache attacks:

  • Bright lights
  • Loud noises
  • Strong odors
  • Changes in weather
  • Barometric pressure

Certain medications

Some medications, including oral contraceptives and blood pressure medications, can increase the risk of migraines. Nitroglycerin, a medication used to treat chest pain, can trigger cluster headaches in some individuals.

Substance use

Substance use, particularly tobacco, and alcohol, can increase the risk of developing migraines and cluster headaches. It is important to limit or avoid these substances to reduce the likelihood of experiencing these conditions.

Preventative Treatment

Preventive treatment for migraines and cluster headaches can reduce the frequency and severity of these headaches. Here are some standard preventive treatment options:


Several medications can be used to prevent migraines and cluster headaches. These include beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants. Your healthcare provider can help determine which medication may be most effective for you.

Lifestyle changes

Specific lifestyle changes can help reduce the frequency and severity of migraines and cluster headaches. These may include:

  • enough sleep
  • eating a healthy diet
  • avoiding triggers
  • managing stress


Biofeedback is a technique that uses sensors to monitor muscle tension, heart rate, and other bodily functions. By learning to control these functions, individuals can reduce the frequency and severity of headaches.


Acupuncture involves the insertion of thin needles into specific points of the body. It is effective in reducing the frequency and severity of migraines and cluster headaches.

Occipital Nerve Stimulation

Occipital nerve stimulation involves the use of a small electrical device that is implanted under the skin near the occipital nerves in the back of the head. This source for headache treatment can be effective for chronic migraines and other headache issues.

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)

TMS is a non-invasive technique that uses magnetic pulses to stimulate nerve cells in the brain. It is effective in reducing the frequency and severity of migraines.

Cluster Headache vs Migraine

The bottom line is that cluster headaches and migraines are separate neurological issues. While both involve head pain, there are many unique signs and symptoms.

To learn more about symptoms of cluster headache vs migraine, contact your healthcare provider. Don’t suffer in silence; seek medical advice today!

Do you want to find more helpful info? Check out more of our guides on our blog today!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *