- A recent study suggests that the people who experience cluster headaches are likely to miss twice the amount of the work as people who don’t.
- According to experts, the research demonstrates that cluster headaches are a serious condition that can dramatically affect a person’s capacity for work.
- There are no simple treatments to relieve the symptoms of cluster headaches.
Cluster headaches, as their name suggests, typically come in groups and affect one side of the head, usually around the eye.
They’re short, yet extremely painful and can be episodic or chronic, occurring many days, or even weeks, in a row. They can occur up to eight times a day or more, lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to 3 hours, according to the American Migraine Foundation.
They’re also more common in people ages 20 to 40, or those in their prime working years, which means they can dramatically impact a person’s ability to do his or her job.
New research out of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, suggests people who suffer from cluster headaches may miss twice as much work as people who don’t have them.
Symptoms can severely affect a person’s work capacity
The research, published in the journal Neurology, used data from more than 3,200 people of working age who had been treated for cluster headaches over a nine-year period.
The research team also looked at data from 16,200 people who don’t have such headaches.
Overall, researchers found people who have cluster headaches take an average of 16 sick days per year, while people without the headaches typically only took a week.
When workers took off of work claiming disability, people with cluster headaches had an average of 63 sick and disability days, while people without cluster headaches only took an average of 34 days off work.
“This study shows that cluster headaches dramatically interfere with people’s work capacity,” study author, Dr. Christina Sjöstrand, said in a statement. “More research is needed on how to best treat and manage this form of headache so people who experience them have fewer days in pain and miss fewer days of work.”
Cluster headaches affect a notable percentage of the U.S. workforce
About 1 in every 1,000 people in the United States has cluster headaches. While cluster headaches are a somewhat common ailment that dramatically impacts a person’s ability to work, the United States does not guarantee a worker paid sick leave, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
But cluster headaches don’t affect workers equally.
The researchers noticed that, on average, college-educated people with cluster headaches had more than half as many sick and disability days: 41, compared to 86 for people who only completed elementary school.
Oddly enough, cluster headaches are more common in men, but women have twice as many sick days due to their symptoms affecting their ability to work. In their sample, the Swedish researchers say men take an average of 12 sick days, while women take 24.
For disability days, men take an average of 53, while women had an average of 84 days.
Sjöstrand says the reasons for the differences between men and women remain unclear and further research is needed to fully understand them.
“While it is believed that men and women experience cluster headaches in mostly similar ways, it may be that we do not yet have a full picture of sex differences in the disease,” she said.
But the researchers noted their study was far from perfect.
One limitation was that it only looked at people who were treated in a hospital or by a specialist, not people who sought care only in primary healthcare clinics. This means, the researchers note, the people in the study could be those who experience more severe cluster headaches, and thus are more likely to need time to recover.
Disabling symptoms with no easy treatments
Dr. Medhat Mikhael, a pain management specialist and medical director of the non-operative program at the Spine Health Center at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California,says the study’s outcome came as expected because people with cluster headaches naturally would need more time off of work compared to people without them.
“Cluster headache is the most intense and disabling headache anyone could have and during the acute episode, no one can function normally,” he told Healthline.
Because of the different symptoms — like drooping eyelids, redness, teary eyes, and sweating — patients often need to sit in a dark room away from stimuli and move their body forward and backward to accommodate for the intense discomfort, Mikhael said.
And there’s no simple pill to take to relieve the pain of cluster headaches. Treatments include breathing in 100 percent oxygen, a nasal spray medication called sumatriptan (Imitrex), injections of dihydroergotamine (DHE), capsaicin cream, and even Botox injections.
Mikhael says employers need to understand that it would be very hard for someone during an acute episode of cluster headaches to attend or function normally, so they need time off to be able to treat it.
“The workplace needs to fully understand that such patients should be allowed time off and afforded the time necessary to see a physician or go to the hospital to receive adequate treatment for the acute episode to abort it,” he said.
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