Health experts today launch a world first as a major boost for people who suffer what is ranked the most painful medical condition known to humankind, with its pain described by a majority of female sufferers as worse than childbirth.
A new fast track clinic opens its doors to sufferers of cluster headache, who often must wait for their next appointment with a consultant, despite the start of a bout, the period during which individual attacks occur, or worsening symptoms. Instead, the clinic at Guy's and St Thomas's hospital in London, will see them within a week, after referral from their family doctor, and offer treatment and support intended to get their cluster headache under control.
It coincides with the first-ever awareness day on the condition, which affects four in 1,000 people and is as prevalent as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease. The day is staged by OUCH (UK), the Organisation for the Understanding of Cluster Headache, a member and partner of the European Headache Alliance, and the European Headache Federation. The clinic follows close liaison between OUCH (UK), sufferers, supporters and the pain management centre at the hospital.
The word "cluster" refers to a period of time, lasting weeks or months, during which attacks come on a daily basis, with an increased number associated with seasonal changes and light hours in the day, peaking at the equinox.
People experience acute, sharp pain, usually behind the eye, together with other facial symptoms, such as a running or blocked nose, eye tears and facial swelling. Attacks, as many as eight a day, last up to three hours. Though most patients may have a remission period for a few months, without attacks, about 20 per cent face a chronic pattern of attacks, without any significant remission.
While no specific medication has yet been developed for the condition, a number of techniques and treatments can ease the pain and help people through their bout of attacks. But the biggest issue for patients is obtaining a correct diagnosis and timely access to a headache specialist.
Scott Bruce, a trustee of OUCH (UK), said: "As an episodic sufferer, being able to quickly and effectively seek assistance from specialist medical help is vital for good management of a condition that impacts greatly on my quality of life.
"As a trustee, who assists well over 2000 individual sufferers in Britain, this service will mean so much to every single one of them and their families".
Dr Giorgio Lambru, headache neurologist in the headache centre at at Guy's and St Thomas's hospital, said: "There is an urgent need to significantly improve cluster headache care. We are adopting a new clinical approach, with a patient-initiated clinic, and we hope to foster collaboration at all levels of care, so we can manage this devastating condition better."
Dr Anna Andreou, research director of the headache centre, said: "The ultimate cluster headache treatment is yet to be found. However, a number of interventions, delivered in a timely fashion, can help to provide relief for such a devastating condition."
Professor Dimos Mitsikostas, president of the European Headache Federation, said that more than 600,000 people in Europe live with cluster headache, with under half seeing a specialist and more than a third missing work, costing €7 billion a year.
Professor Mitsikostas added: "Cluster headache is a brain disorder, requiring specific management, that only a specialist headache centre can offer.
"Such centres are highly lacking currently and the condition often remains undiagnosed for years, before a patient can get the right treatment.
"A fast-track cluster headache clinic is a great idea, since this is the major complaint of these patients. They need to be seen by an expert as soon as possible".
Audrey Craven, past president of the European Headache Alliance, said: "We are pleased to support the launch of this fast track cluster headache clinic.
"Cluster headache is one of the worst pains known to man and it is vital that all those affected have access to appropriate treatment and care, to manage this devastating disorder."