Difference Between a Migraine and a Cluster Headache

There are many different types of headaches, all with varying symptoms, however this article is going to provide information on the difference between a migraine headache and a cluster headache.


The word migraine originates from the Greek word “hemikrania” which translates to “pain on one side of the head,” –  hemi means half and kranion means skull. Migraine is considered to be a chronic neurological disorder. Migraines are characterized by moderate to severe headaches that are often associated with numerous autonomic nervous system symptoms.

Most often, the headache affects one half of the head, which is termed unilateral. The pain is often described as pulsating and can last anywhere from 2 hours up to 72 hours.

Some of the additional symptoms may include increased sensitivity to light or photophobia, nausea, increased sensitivity to sound and vomiting. Often, the pain is aggravated by any kind of physical activity. Many people need to go and lie in an extremely quiet, darkened room until the migraine passes. Any noise can be piercing and cause increased agitation and distress.

Approximately 1/3 of people who have migraine headaches perceive an aura prior to the event. This can be either a motor disturbance, a transient sensory, visual or language disturbance; however, it sends the signal to the sufferer that the headache is coming, and soon.

Causes of Migraines

It is believed that a combination of genetic and environmental factors is responsible for migraines; however, fluctuating hormone levels may additionally play a role. Approximated 2/3 of cases run in families. Typically, women are affected more than men. Experts are unsure why migraines occur but they are believed to be a neurovascular disorder.

The 4 Possible Phases of a Migraine

The Prodrome or precursor phase occurs hours or days prior to the headache. The Aura phase is experienced immediately before the headache occurs. The headache phase or the pain phase is the “ouch part” of the entire episode and the Postdrome refers to the effects experienced following the end of a migraine attack. Not everyone experiences all 4 stages.

Cluster Headache

This is an extremely intense and sudden headache, more painful than migraine. Cluster headache pain is also described as a one-sided head pain, in the perceived range of severe to extremely severe. It has been described as a steady, sharp, burning pain.

Pain may be felt around, in and behind one eye. The eye area can appear very dark during the attack, as though the person has been punched in the eye. Symptoms can also include a stuffy nose and tearing of the eyes.

The person suffering is in extreme pain and feels as though no matter what they do, they can’t get rid of the pain. Recommended methods of alleviating headache pain such as laying down, cold compresses, or sitting in a darkened room seem to give little relief when cluster headache strikes.

Attacks may occur on a regular basis anytime from 1 week up to 1 year. Incidences may be separated by symptom free periods lasting for a month and sometimes longer.

Causes of Cluster Headaches

Cluster headaches are 4 times more likely to be experienced by men than women. These headaches can take place at any age, however, are most commonly experienced during middle age and adolescence. Cluster headaches are described as a chronic headache and are believed to have a genetic basis.

Experts are unsure exactly why cluster headaches occur, however, they seem to be related to the body’s sudden release of serotonin or histamine. Some scientists believe the hypothalamus in the brain may be involved.

Triggers for Cluster Headaches

The following may be triggers for cluster headaches: cigarette smoking and alcohol, high altitudes from flying and trekking, sunlight and other forms of bright light, hot baths, hot weather and heat in general, physical exertion, exposure to nitrates from foods such as preserved meats and bacon, and some medications.