3 Natural Solutions to Relieve the Pain of Cluster Headaches

cluster headache remedies
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Cluster headaches cause a type of pain that occurs in short-lived but severe attacks affecting one side of the head. If you experience these headaches, you may wonder whether there are any natural remedies that may help.

Symptoms

Cluster headaches often occur repeatedly throughout the day for weeks or months at a time, and then stop for several weeks or months. The pain can be extremely intense and even unbearable.

Cluster headaches are characterized by a burning, stabbing, or steady pain that often occurs in and around one eye. The pain may quickly intensify, peaking within 10 minutes and lasting 30 minutes to three hours. Cluster headaches most commonly strike two to three hours after falling asleep and tend to occur at the same time every night.

Attacks may be accompanied by the following symptoms on the same side as the head pain:

  • Restlessness
  • Drooping eyelid
  • Excessive tears
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Pupil constriction
  • Runny nose (or stuffy nose)
  • Facial flushing, swelling, or sweating
  • Agitation

In contrast to migraines, cluster headaches often occur without the preliminary signs that are characteristic of a migraine.

If you think that you may have cluster headaches, it's important to see your doctor. As part of the diagnosis, your doctor will rule out other causes of head pain, like migraines, as well as underlying medical conditions that could be causing the pain.

Causes

While the exact cause isn't known, cluster headaches are classified as vascular headaches and appear to be related to the dilation of blood vessels in the head, which puts pressure on nerves of the face (the trigeminal nerve).

Men, adults age 20 and older, and people with a family history of cluster headaches appear to be at an increased risk for the condition.

Smoking, drinking alcohol, and being under stress can also raise your risk for a cluster headache attack.

Natural Remedies

Most of the research on head pain and diet, food triggers, and remedies have focused on migraines. So far, very few studies have looked at remedies for cluster headaches, whether natural, pharmaceutical, or surgical. Here's a look at some findings from the available research for natural remedies:

1) Melatonin

Both the individual pain episodes and the clusters of attacks often occur with regularity at a precise time of day. The clusters tend to occur during specific sleep stages and often increase during changes in daylight savings time in the spring and fall, prompting scientists to hypothesize that the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that regulates the biological clock or circadian rhythm) is involved.

A 2016 review on melatonin (a hormone controlled by the hypothalamus that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles) published in Headache found that melatonin supplements were more effective than a placebo in treating cluster headaches. The review's authors concluded that further research is needed to better understand the possible relationship between melatonin and cluster headaches.

This is the only natural medication that merited a "possibly effective" rating in reducing the frequency of cluster headache attacks in the American Headache Society Treatment Guidelines for 2016.

2) Capsaicin Nasal Spray or Cream

A nasal spray containing capsaicin (the active ingredient in hot peppers) may help reduce the pain of cluster headache attacks, according to preliminary research. Capsaicin spray is thought to work locally in the nose by desensitizing the trigeminal nerve (the facial nerve that runs down to the nose) and depleting levels of a chemical involved in pain.

No new studies were found by the experts researching the 2016 treatment guidelines, only an older study which found some effects in reducing the number of attacks by using capsaicin in the same side of the nose as the head pain.

As a result, they rank it as having insufficient evidence to make a recommendation.

Although capsaicin is available in a variety of forms, only the commercial nasal sprays have been explored for cluster headaches. Non-sterile, homemade capsaicin nasal sprays and washes should not be used.

3) Diet, Lifestyle, and Stress Relief

Alcohol can trigger cluster headaches in some people. If you drink alcohol, consider avoiding it during a cluster period. Smoking, bright lights, overheating (hot weather, saunas, strenuous activity, hot baths, and showers), and being at high altitude can also trigger attacks.

Certain foods may trigger attacks in some people, including foods that are high in nitrates (such as bacon, hot dogs, luncheon meat, and other preserved and processed meat).

Treatment

The pain peaks quickly, so treatment often involves fast-acting pain medication as well as preventative treatment:

  • Nasal sprays of zolmitriptan or local anesthetics
  • Injections of Imitrex (sumatriptan) or dihydroergotamine (DHE)
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Neurostimulation
  • Surgery

When left untreated, cluster headaches can recur for years and interfere with your daily functioning. Cluster headache is associated with depression (in part related to sleep disturbances caused by nightly attacks) and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

The Takeaway

If you or someone you know gets cluster headaches, you're likely well aware of how severely painful the headaches can be, and may be seeking a natural way to relieve the pain. Due to the limited research, however, it's too soon to recommend any remedy to treat cluster headaches. If you're still considering trying one, be sure to discuss it first with your doctor to be sure that it's right for you. Some remedies, like melatonin, have possible side effects and may not be appropriate.

You may be able to prevent cluster headaches to a certain extent by avoiding factors that you know can precipitate attacks, such as alcohol, tobacco, extreme heat or altitudes, and even certain foods. Keeping a diary can help you identify and avoid factors that induce the attacks, helping to keep you pain-free.

Sources:

Campellone JV. Cluster Headache. MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000786.htm.

Cluster Headache. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cluster-headache/symptoms-causes/dxc-20206299.

Gelfand AA, Goadsby PJ. The Role of Melatonin in the Treatment of Primary Headache Disorders. Headache. 2016 Jun 17.

Robbins MS, Starling AJ, Pringsheim TM, Becker WJ, Schwedt TJ. Treatment of Cluster Headache: The American Headache Society Evidence-Based Guidelines. Headache. 2016 Jul;56(7):1093-106.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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