Today I had the first of what I’m pretty certain are cluster headaches, the first for almost exactly two and a half years. If you don’t know what one of those is, then you should consider yourself rather fortunate. They’re a lot like migraines, only with less of the curious flashing lights and odd sense of foreboding beforehand, and more of the rather less exciting pain.
There’s no documented single precursor for these headaches, and I suppose I’ve been lucky in my long remission. What’s interesting is that the hypothalamus – which is sensitive to daylight levels and hence the seasons – is considered partly to blame for them. Before early 2009, I had an episodic cluster at the start of 2008 and 2007; each headache occurred at around 12-1am. After that gap of some thirty months, the cycle seems to have switched from midwinter-midnight to midsummer-midday. Whether this is part of a longer cycle or not isn’t clear, as today was my first in this cluster of what I hope will eventually turn out to be one.
It’s both fortunate and infuriating that I’m unable to find a clear external cause: it means I can still, say, drink red wine and not worry too much, but it also means that giving up that same red wine during danger periods, which I would gladly do, has only a moderate effect; regardless, I would never have predicted a lunchtime headache today anyway. Their episodic quality also means I’ve never got treatment for them, but then as I’m a relatively mild sufferer – I’m only in agony for around an hour, at most half a dozen times in a couple of weeks, at most every year – then it’s not clear whether the longer-term preventatives like injections would really be worth the inconvenience and possible side effects.
Wikipedia suggests that the pain of cluster headaches be described as “excruciating”. It’s certainly no fun, and while it lasts I’m essentially debilitated. The feeling itself is a hot and searing needle – more a heavy door nail – which seems to rotate through my eye, temple, jawbone, teeth, and back to my eye, with a period of two to five minutes. My eye waters and reddens, and my nose runs. I pace around, or have the urge to press strongly against the ridge and lobe of my skull above my temple, or push against a wall. Occasionally, without meaning to, I groan. Luckily today there was a quiet, darkened, unused meeting room for me to do all of this in during my lunch break.
Within around an hour the pain has mostly subsided, leaving a dull ache like a localised hangover or the feeling you get when you forcibly hold your breath. My first daytime headache left me feeling like a wet rag for hours afterwards: eventually fine to cycle home, but not really up to social contact in the office. I’m still a bit dazed but I wanted to write about it as soon as possible, as some of the experience of it fades so quickly (and the night-time headaches have always tired me out to the extent that I’ve slept heavily afterwards.)
Cluster headache sufferers report wildly varying levels of pain. Would I swap mine for, say, serious, chronic food poisoning? No. For a whole day of a bad hangover? Absolutely, definitely yes. For a broken bone? They’re about the same, only the headache is compressed into a shorter time span and then more easily forgotten. But are they “suicide” headaches? Thankfully, luckily, blissfully, not for me; for others, most definitely yes. But if you’re reading this, and you’re thinking: dear God! That’s what I’ve had all these years! – then in the deepest, darkest buffetings of such future agonies as you might have to endure, remember: you’re not alone.