Cluster headaches are considered by the medical community (and sufferers) to be one of the most painful chronic conditions. They are not as common as migraine or tension type headaches, affecting approximately 1 in 1000 people.
Only one in five cluster headache sufferers (or “clusterheads” as they often call themselves) are women.
Symptoms of Cluster Headaches
Cluster headaches have a distinct pattern of symptoms:
- Rapid onset of one-sided pain (usually around the eye or the temple)
- Pain is excruciating and lasts 15 minutes to 3 hours
- Can happen at any time of day but often occurs 2 hours after going to bed
- Associated symptoms can include: tearing, red eyes, puffy eyelids, stuffy/ runny nose, facial sweating, and drooping eyelids
- Headaches occur in clusters with headaches occurring frequently over the course of several weeks, followed by a headache-free interval of 6 months to a year. Clusters often occur in the late winter (February) and autumn.
- Some cluster headache sufferers have chronic headaches with no headache-free intervals.
Treatment of Cluster Headaches
The bulk of medical research on headache treatments focuses on migraine type headaches and cluster headache sufferers are left to try a variety of different pharmaceuticals in an attempt to find relief from their pain.
Emerging research on natural treatment options for cluster headaches has been encouraging. Used alone or in conjunction with drug therapies many cluster headache sufferers may find greater relief from the pain of cluster headaches. Below is a list of some of the most promising natural treatment options currently available.
Note: Natural medicines are still medicines and should be taken under the supervision of a qualified health care professional.
Patients at the New England Center for Headache experienced a decrease in cluster headache intensity after applying capsaicin cream inside their nostrils.
Capsaicin is the active component of cayenne pepper and acts as a pain reliever by stimulating pain sensing C nerve fibers and rapidly depleting the substances these fibers use to convey pain signals to the brain. The capsaicin causes a burning sensation for approximately 10 minutes which must occur for the treatment to be effective. The burning sensation will decrease
with subsequent applications. Use the capsaicin cream on the same side as the headache for best effects.
Cluster headache sufferers often have a lower than average level of melatonin, especially during a cluster period. Based on this observation, and the timing of cluster headaches (often occurring a few hours after going to bed) melatonin has been studied as a potential treatment for cluster headaches. One study found the use of melatonin at bedtime for 14 days significantly reduced headache severity and frequency when compared to placebo.
Studies have shown that people with cluster headaches often have the lower than average levels of serum magnesium. Intervention with intravenous magnesium resulted in relief of symptoms for all cluster headache sufferers assessed. Oral magnesium hasn’t been studied but may be effective in reversing the magnesium deficiency seen in cluster headache sufferers.
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)
Taken daily, vitamin B2 has been shown in studies to decrease the severity and frequency of cluster headaches. 3 months of daily supplementation was needed to have an effect.
Kudzu (Pueraria lobata)
It contains antioxidants, has anesthetic effects, dilates blood vessels in the brain, increases blood flow to the brain and can improve brain acetylcholine. Studies on the use of Kudzu in the treatment of cluster headaches are scarce, but case studies have shown a decrease in frequency and intensity of cluster headaches in a high percentage (approximately 70%) of patients studied. Dose of Kudzu is individualized and attaining optimal dose is necessary to see any benefit.
Other Botanical Medicines
Many botanical (herbal) medicines have been used in the natural treatment of cluster headaches. California poppy, passion flower, skullcap, valerian and Jamaican dogwood have all been used with varying success to decrease the symptoms of cluster headaches.
Studies are currently exploring other alternative treatments for cluster headaches. One treatment that has been getting some attention is psilocybin (the active constituent in ‘magic mushrooms’). Some benefit has been seen in case studies but more research on the appropriate dose and dispensing of this substance is needed before its use can be recommended.
If you, or someone you care about, suffer from cluster headaches it may be worthwhile for them to explore these treatment options. Speak to a Naturopathic Doctor to determine which treatments might work for you.
The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.
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