3 Natural Solutions to Relieve the Pain of Cluster Headaches

cluster headache remedies
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What Is a Cluster Headache?

Cluster headaches cause a type of pain that occurs in short-lived but severe attacks affecting one side of the head. 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.

Symptoms of Cluster Headaches

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 of Cluster Headaches

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 for Cluster Headache Relief

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. Here's a look at some findings from the available research:

1) Capsaicin Nasal Spray

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 deplete levels of chemical involved in pain.

The available research includes a small, older study published in Pain, which found that repeated nasal applications of capsaicin in the same side of the nose as the head pain resulted in a marked improvement in pain compared to treatment in the opposite nostril.

Another older study in Cephalgia found that after seven days of treatment with either capsaicin or placebo (in the nostril on the same side as the pain), those using capsaicin had significantly less cluster headache pain compared to those taking the placebo, with the reduction in pain apparent on days 8 through 15.

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.

2) 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.

3) Diet, Lifestyle, and Stress Relief

Alcohol, particularly beer, can trigger cluster headaches in some people. If you get drink alcohol, consider avoiding it during a cluster period. Smoking and overheating (hot weather, saunas, strenuous activity, hot baths, and showers) can also trigger attacks.

Certain foods can 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) and tyramines (such as aged cheese, citrus fruits, chocolate, soy sauce, and nuts).

In some people, stress can be a trigger for cluster headache attacks. Although practices such as yoga and meditation haven't been specifically studied for their effects on cluster headache occurrence, they may help stave off attacks by helping you manage your stress.

Treatment

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

  • Pain-relieving medication
  • Nasal sprays
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Physical therapies (such as hot and cold treatments)
  • Injections
  • 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:

Fusco BM, Marabini S, Maggi CA, Fiore G, Geppetti P. Preventative effect of repeated nasal applications of capsaicin in cluster headache. Pain. 1994 Dec;59(3):321-5.

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

Marks DR, Rapoport A, Padla D, et al. A double-blind placebo-controlled trial of intranasal capsaicin for cluster headache. Cephalalgia. 1993 Apr;13(2):114-6.

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.

Rapoport AM, Bigal ME, Tepper SJ, Sheftell FD. Intranasal medications for the treatment of migraine and cluster headache. CNS Drugs. 2004;18(10):671-8.

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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