3 Natural Solutions to Relieve the Pain of Cluster Headaches

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

While the exact cause isn't known, 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.

Symptoms

Cluster headaches are characterized by a burning, stabbing, or steady pain that often occurs in and around one eye or on the side of the head. The pain often intensifies quickly and lasts between 15 minutes to two hours.

Attacks are accompanied by symptoms on the same side as the head pain. Symptoms may include:

  • Eyelid drooping or swelling
  • Excessive tears
  • Bloodshot eyes
  • Pupil constriction
  • Nasal congestion or a runny nose
  • Facial flushing, swelling, or sweating

Most people feel agitated or restless during an attack. In contrast to migraines, cluster headaches often occur without the preliminary signs that are characteristic of a migraine.

Cluster headaches often occur in periods lasting one week to 12 months at a time, and then stop for at least one month (known as "episodic cluster headaches"). Some people have these headache periods continuously for over a year or have breaks that are less than a month.

If you have an episode of severe pain, it's important to see a doctor immediately. In some cases, cluster-like head pain could be a symptom of a medical condition, such as internal carotid artery dissection, that requires immediate treatment. 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.

Natural Treatments for Cluster Headaches

The severe and recurrent attacks of pain caused by cluster headaches often means that both fast-acting pain relief and preventative treatments are used. Here's a look at some findings from the available research on natural remedies:

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. It 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.

According to a report published in Therapeutics and Clinical Risk Management in 2015, melatonin may be considered as an option for long-term prevention in some people with cluster headaches who don't respond to conventional treatment and/or when intolerance or contraindications limit the use of standard preventative treatment.

It's important to note however, that melatonin supplements may affect serotonin levels in the body. Additionally, a 2017 analysis of melatonin products found that 26 percent of melatonin supplements contained serotonin. You should consult your physician if you are considering trying melatonin. People who take medications that influence serotonin levels should be particularly cautious in order to prevent serious adverse effects such as serotonin syndrome.

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 around the eye area and the side of the head) and depleting levels of a chemical involved in pain.

No new studies were found by the experts researching the 2016 American Headache Society's 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 shouldn't be used.

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 altitudes can also trigger attacks in some people.

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:

  • Injections of sumatriptan (Imitrex)
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Nasal sprays of zolmitriptan, sumatriptan, or local anesthetics
  • Oral medications such as zolmitriptan
  • Dihydroergotamine (DHE)
  • Nerve blocks and injections

Your doctor may discuss surgical options (such as neurostimulation) with you, particularly if medication doesn't help the pain.

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), anxiety, substance use disorders, 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 a natural alternative, 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 drug interactions and may not be appropriate for you.

You may be able to diminish 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.

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