Lithium for cluster headaches


Generic Name Brand Name
lithium carbonate Eskalith, Lithobid

How It Works

It is unclear how lithium prevents cluster headaches. It may affect the function of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates sleep cycle, body temperature, and pituitary gland activity. Some experts believe that altered function of the hypothalamus is the cause of cluster headaches.

Why It Is Used

Lithium may be used to prevent occasional and chronic cluster headaches. Lithium costs less than some other medicines.

How Well It Works

Lithium effectively reduces chronic cluster headaches and episodic or occasional cluster headaches. Depending on the kind of cluster headaches (chronic or episodic) being treated, up to 8 out of 10 people treated with lithium have relief from pain within just a few days of starting this treatment.1 It is sometimes combined with other medicines, such as corticosteroids or ergotamine, for more effective treatment.

Side Effects

Side effects of lithium include:

  • Tremor (which is the most common side effect and can be treated).
  • Nausea.
  • Fatigue and weakness.
  • Weight gain.
  • Swelling.
  • Kidney problems, such as excess urination and low sodium (diabetes insipidus).
  • Thyroid problems and enlargement of the thyroid gland (with long-term use).
  • Confusion or other nervous system symptoms that can result from too much lithium in the blood.

If you take lithium, keep the amount of sodium you get in your diet the same. Your doctor will check your sodium to make sure the lithium does not cause a side effect called hyponatremia (low sodium).

See Drug Reference for a full list of side effects. (Drug Reference is not available in all systems.)

What To Think About

If you are taking lithium, you will need to have regular blood tests to monitor the level of lithium in your blood. You may also need to have your thyroid gland and kidney function watched during long-term use of lithium.

Complete the new medication information form (PDF)(What is a PDF document?) to help you understand this medication.



  1. Rozen TD (2002). New treatments in cluster headache. Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, 2(2): 114–121.

Last Updated: April 11, 2008

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