Calcium-channel blockers, commonly used to treat high blood pressure and heart disease, are important drugs for preventing episodic and chronic cluster headaches. Verapamil (Calan) is the standard calcium-channel blocker used for cluster headache prevention. It can take 2 - 3 weeks to have a full effect, and a corticosteroid drug may be used in combination during this transitional period. Constipation is a common side effect.
People taking calcium-channel blockers should not stop taking the drug abruptly. Doing so can dangerously increase blood pressure. Overdose can cause dangerously low blood pressure and slow heart beats.
Lithium (Eskalith, Lithane, Lithobid, Lethonate, Lithotabs), commonly used for bipolar disorder, may also help prevent cluster headaches. The patient usually receives benefit within 2 weeks of starting to take the drug, and often within the first week. Lithium may be used alone or with other drugs. Lithium can have many side effects including trembling hands, nausea, and increased thirst. Weight gain is a common side effect with long-term use. [For more information, see In-Depth Report #66: Bipolar disorder.]
Corticosteroid drugs (also called steroids) are very useful as transitional drugs for stabilizing patients after an attack until a maintenance drug, such as verapamil, begins to take effect. Prednisone (Deltasone) and dexamethasone (Decadron) are the standard steroid drugs used for short-term cluster headache transitional treatment. These drugs are typically taken for a week and then gradually tapered off. If headaches return, the patient may start taking the steroid again. Unfortunately, long-term use of steroids can lead to serious side effects so they cannot be taken for on-going prevention.
Review Date: 09/29/2010
Reviewed By: Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.