The Random Remedies We Try for Cluster Headache Attacks

There is a common phrase among cluster headache patients that we would drink gasoline if there were a chance it could end the pain during attacks. When you’re at the peak of a cluster headache without oxygen, an injection, or whatever treatment works to abort for you, you’ll reach for anything. While I’ve never considered gasoline, I’ve tried my fair share of off-the-wall remedies.

I’m not talking about the tiresome adages of “drink more water” or “try essential oils” that we’ve all heard over the years. I’m talking about the things—big and small—we’ve all tried to alleviate the severity of an attack. Whether it’s a short distraction or a way to stop a cluster headache before it starts, these are a few things I and others have tried to short circuit a cluster headache attack.

The frozen slushie

At 19-years-old, I found myself halfway up a drive into the mountains of Colorado when the first attack of an episodic cluster headache cycle came on. I looked at my best friend with fear reflecting in my eyes and told her I didn’t have an injection. There was no medication I could take to stop the icepick crescendo on the right side of my head. She handed me her bright red slushie and told me to chug it. To my surprise, the 16oz frozen drink stopped the attack in its tracks. Though I could never replicate the situation, I was thankful for the one-time abortive properties of the slushie.

The hottest pepper I could find

A few cycles later, I was out of sumatriptan injections and did not have high-flow oxygen yet. My friend’s dad had given us a jar full of pickled habanero and jalapeno peppers. I bolted to the kitchen at the first signs of a shadow (the cluster headache version of an aura that feels like a tingling sensation in the temple and eye) and ate a few of the hot peppers. Later, I used hot sauce, and both options have helped me in a pinch ever since.

The red bull trick

The first Clusterbusters conference I attended in 2014 taught me that Red Bull and similar taurine/caffeine mixtures such as 5-Hour Energy shots could kill an attack if you chug them as soon as you feel the prickling shadow. Unlike the other random remedies, this one seems to work a majority of the time for me. Many others, including my husband, who has chronic cluster headaches, make sure they have Red Bull on hand to drink at the first inkling of an attack.

“Moving the pain”

Another trick recommended by a long-time clusterhead was “moving the pain,” using targeted thoughts. It requires an exhausting amount of brainpower which is already quite low during an attack. But I have managed to “move” the pain from behind my eye to my ear, the base of my skull, cheek, or jaw. It’s only momentary, and when I stop concentrating, it snaps back to the original location. But it allows me a little sanity during the peak of 10/10 pain.

Things others have tried for cluster headaches

During pregnancy with cluster headaches, I used the hot pepper trick again, and it got me thinking, what other off-the-wall options have people living with cluster headaches tried in a pinch? I polled some members of our patient community who gave me these variations to try:

  • Chewing on something such as gum or a pen
  • Slamming back hot, black coffee
  • Liquorice root tincture
  • Going for a run
  • Hot cloth or hot water bottle on the face and head during the precursing shadow
  • Frozen water bottles on the face and head to induce a “brain freeze.” (Tip: The end of the bottle tends to pooch out when frozen, which is perfect for putting pressure on the eye during an attack.)
  • Massaging the temple and neck
  • Tiger balm
  • Being in the cold, whether its icepacks, sitting in the snow, or head in the freezer
  • Sleeping in an upright position to help nocturnal attacks
  • Hot sauce

Psychedelics

Psychedelics are a common topic among the cluster headache community. In this case, a random treatment hack using psilocybin mushrooms discovered by a Scottish man in the late 1990s created a movement among cluster headache patients to reschedule and study psychedelic compounds for their medicinal qualities. This is one of the driving forces behind Clusterbusters, which was founded by Bob Wold who had tried more than 70 different treatments before psilocybin.

Compounds such as psilocybin, LSD, LSA, DMT, and ketamine have generated enough of a buzz in the medical world that they’re the subject of studies for various conditions, including cluster headaches. Nasal ketamine and IV ketamine are prescribed treatments for both migraine disease and cluster. Yale University has an ongoing clinical trial for psilocybin mushrooms and LSD in both headache disorders.

What random remedies have you tried?

We may experience the same pain, but what works to treat my episodic cluster headaches may not work for you. What’s more, what gives me relief during one cycle might not do the trick for the next cycle. The random remedies listed above may not do anything for you, but if you ever find yourself up a mountain with no injection around: Drink the slushie.

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