Cluster headaches are a type of cyclical headache that occur in groupings over a period of weeks or months. These cluster periods are characterised by sharp, stabbing pains that are generally present on one side of the head or around one eye. A cluster headache sufferer may experience one to eight severe headaches per day when a cluster cycle is in effect.
According to the American Migraine Foundation, cluster pain is often described as a burning pain, “like a hot poker in the eye,” and is considered one of the most painful of all headaches. Shorter in duration than migraine headaches, a cluster attack typically lasts anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours.
While migraine pain is generally accompanied by the need to lie down in the dark, cluster pain makes lying down nearly impossible, with sufferers often pacing or rocking to try and distract from the pain. It is speculated that as many as 1 million people are living with cluster pain in the U.S.
Causes of Cluster Headaches
While cluster headaches may be misdiagnosed as migraine, a cluster headache is a unique type of primary headache disorder. Cluster headaches are signalled by the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for your biological clock and maintaining sleeping and waking cycles. The signal triggers a nerve pathway at the base of the brain called the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for sending sensations of heat or pain to the face.
The study of cluster headaches is still a relatively recent discipline, but it is believed there may be a genetic component to the disease, with some families passing down the tendency. Cluster headaches also tend to occur around the same time of year, causing sufferers to mistake them for allergy symptoms or work or life stress.
Cluster headaches generally onset between the ages of 20 and 40 and affect men and women at about the same rates. Cluster headaches may go into periods of remission lasting for months or years, or these attacks may cease permanently for no known reason.
Natural Remedies for Cluster Headaches
When it comes to relieving headache pain, pharmaceutical options generally rely on highly addictive narcotic-based pain medications or steroidal drugs like prednisone. However, if you are a natural health advocate, you’ll be relieved to find multiple, non-addictive options that can help take the edge off the pain and restore you to normal functioning.
Melatonin is the hormone most associated with the sleep-wake cycle. As a supplement, melatonin has gained popularity for insomnia support, helping your body to fall asleep naturally, especially when issues like jet lag or late-night shift work disrupt your normal sleep rhythm.
Melatonin as an adjunct therapy for headache disorders has received scientific validation, including a 2006 study by the Brain Research Institute in Brazil. Researchers expounded on prior research that found decreased melatonin levels in sufferers of both migraine and cluster-type headaches.
They found that melatonin has numerous mechanisms that work to relieve or prevent headaches, including an anti-inflammatory effect, toxic free-radical scavenging, and reduction of pro-inflammatory cytokine up-regulation and opioid analgesia potentiation, meaning it can enhance the effect of other pain medications.
Also known as vitamin B1, thiamine is one of eight essential B vitamins that helps regulate the conversion of food into energy. Naturally present in certain foods, thiamine is absorbed by the small intestine and stored primarily in the liver, but only in trace amounts, making it crucial to provide a continuous supply from your diet.
One of the risk factors of thiamine deficiency is headaches, leading researchers to explore what may link these phenomena. Headache pain may cause a person to experience nausea and therefore avoid eating, causing a mild thiamine deficiency. Further, B vitamins as a group have been shown to affect clinical symptoms of migraine headaches.
To ensure you are getting adequate amounts of thiamine in your diet, eat foods such as macadamia nuts, lentils, pastured pork and grass fed beef, and vegetables like organic leafy greens, beets and potatoes.
When you think of kudzu, you probably think of the invasive vine that grows unchecked along many U.S. highways. What you may not know is that kudzu’s root, flower and leaf are used to make traditional herbal remedies for ailments such as alcoholism, upset stomach, dizziness, vomiting and — you guessed it — headaches.
Kudzu goes by many names in many regions of the world, including Japanese arrowroot. A staple of traditional Chinese medicine, studies on kudzu supplementation have been primarily focused on the plant’s unique ability to cure an alcohol hangover. Since headaches are a common hangover symptom, perhaps it was this connection that led researchers to explore self-treatment options for cluster headaches.
A 2009 analysis of kudzu extract use by cluster headache sufferers found that the extract, available over-the-counter at most herbal apothecaries and drug stores, was useful in alleviating the symptoms of cluster headaches: 69% of participants experienced decreased intensity of attacks, 56% experienced decreased headache frequency and 31% experienced decreased duration of pain.
Short for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, CAM refers to the category of therapeutic applications that fall outside the scope of standard medical care. Therapies and treatments that focus on holistic wellness, i.e., treating the whole person, are considered CAM, as opposed to Western medicine that focuses treatment on individual symptoms in isolation.
In 2008, a survey was conducted on multiple headache treatment centres in Italy. Results showed that between 8% and 28% of cluster headache sufferers who tried CAM treatments experienced relief from those therapies. Examples of CAM therapies that may relieve headache pain include electromyographic (EMG) biofeedback, yoga, acupuncture and integrative medicine.
Psilocybin is a compound in certain mushrooms — often referred to as magic mushrooms — that may have the ability to relieve cluster headaches. A study of 53 patients with cluster headaches who had used either psilocybin or LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) for relief found that 25 of 48 patients who used psilocybin reported that their cluster period ended after treatment with psilocybin.
Further, 18 of 19 psilocybin users reported an extended remission period after dosing with the mushrooms. Research into the therapeutic properties of psilocybin has led to multiple decriminalisation measures in several states and to the development of medical research centres (including one at Johns Hopkins University), that are exclusively focused on psychedelic substances and their potential medical value.
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