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Cluster headaches can be a really debilitating condition. For people with cluster headaches, they are never safe from the potential of severe pain. When headaches strike it becomes impossible to concentrate or focus, or to stay in a positive mood. Thankfully, they are quite rare and typically only affect 1 or 2 people out of every 1,000. Men are up to four times more likely to suffer from cluster headaches than women. Cluster headaches usually start to occur once or after the patient reaches 30 years old. Because the condition is so rare, there is still very little information available on it.
Cluster headaches tend to flare up around the same time each year, every spring for example. Because of this, many people who suffer from cluster headaches mistakenly associate them with allergies or seasonal stress and are never properly diagnosed.
The headache attacks can be more painful than a migraine. It’s not unusual for the person experiencing one to leap up from their seat and pace or rock frantically until the pain subsides. Many patients describe the head pain of a cluster headache attack to be similar to a ‘drilling’ sensation. It sounds extremely distressing to anyone who has never experienced it. Thankfully, they tend to last for just 15 minutes which, although it may not seem like a long time to you or I, probably feels like an eternity to a person experiencing a cluster headache.
The distinguishing characteristic of a cluster headache as opposed to any other type of headache, of which there are many, is that cluster headaches tend to be much more localized. They usually take place in the area of the skull above one eye, or one temple, on one side of the head or in the centre of the forehead. They can swap sides, occurring over the right eye one day and over the left the next, although this isn’t typical. When this does happen, it makes the cluster headache much harder to diagnose, and treat as a result.
There are other physical cues that will point to a cluster headache. They include:
Cluster headaches get their name because they usually occur in clusters. This means that a patient might experience up to 8 headaches per day during a bout. This can be extremely distressing and both mentally and physically exhausting for the patient. They usually present as a series of short but extremely painful headaches. They can come on very suddenly, catching the patient off guard, causing them intense pain and stopping them in their tracks. Because they start suddenly, it’s impossible to predict when the next headache will occur, so daily life can be a real nightmare.
A bout of cluster headaches could last anywhere from one week to a few months at a time with several attacks occuring per day during the bout. Remission periods then follow when the patient is headache and symptom free. Remission could last for years at a time if the patient is lucky. The chronic cluster headaches can reappear at any time, for no apparent reason. For many people, this can have a very significant impact on their day to day lives both at home and at work.
What Causes Cluster Headaches?
In short, we have no idea. Very little is understood about cluster headaches. Scientists still aren’t sure what causes them, although they believe that it may be linked to activity in the hypothalamus (a part of the brain). It’s also thought that smokers are more at risk of developing the condition, and that bouts of cluster headache attacks could be triggered by very overpowering smells such as perfume or cologne, petrol or strong paint. Scientists also suspect that drinking alcohol has a role to play in triggering bouts, although they really don’t know much more than that. It’s an area that needs much more research, but because it affects such a small portion of the population it has been sidelined for years in favour of other, more common conditions. Unfortunately, this isn’t of much help to those suffering with the condition.
Treatments for Cluster Headaches
Luckily, there are some treatment options available to people who suffer from cluster headaches.
Zolmitriptan can be given although it is only available in nasal spray form.
Unfortunately it’s very common for the patient to not have access to the options listed above at a time of headache. However, if they suffer from cluster headaches often they can put measures in place to ensure they have access to the acute treatment they need during an attack. Much like someone who suffers with allergies knows to carry an EpiPen at all times, it’s vital for those suffering with cluster headaches to be as prepared as they possibly can be.
Medical Cannabis is one option for patients that is gaining some popularity in recent times. As more and more people opt to use medical cannabis as a treatment for an increasingly wide range of illnesses and conditions, the anecdotal evidence to support its effectiveness as a treatment from chronic pain is mounting fast.
Not very much is known about medical cannabis yet. The variations in its legal status across the United States has really limited the ability of researchers to carry out large scale, high standard studies on it’s uses and effects. This is a pity, as the anecdotal evidence to support it is so strong. Without the science to back that evidence up though, it simply isn’t enough to make any great claims or absolute statements.
However, there are some things that we do know about medical cannabis. We know that it interacts with the endocannabinoid system, a system of receptors that are found throughout our bodies and which are linked to the immune system. Medical acts as a supplement for this system, making it more efficient and giving it a general boost. In this way, it can affect a whole host of the functions of our bodies, including the way we feel pain. This is believed to be the reason for the centuries of evidence that suggest that medical cannabis is an excellent treatment for chronic pain.
It’s easy to see why this could be of benefit to people suffering from cluster headaches, right? The pain that they experience is incredibly intense. It makes it extremely difficult to work, drive, socialize, or even look after their own children. Although medical cannabis is unlikely to cure cluster headaches, the promise of it significantly reducing the pain they cause is exciting. If this is the case, it could make an enormous difference to patients and help to restore to them some level of functioning during cluster headache bouts. Any improve to their quality of life would surely be very welcome.
We also know that medical cannabis is highly tolerable. This means that our bodies are well able for it, and the side effects it causes are minimal. This is a very important factor when considering treatment of any chronic condition, including cluster headaches, because it will likely be used as a treatment for life. It’s vital that lifelong treatments are safe and don’t cause any harm to the body as a result. So, the fact that all of the research conducted into medical cannabis so far, along with centuries of anecdotal evidence, points to it being safe is a very positive thing indeed.
There is some suggestion that medical cannabis could be used as a preventative treatment for conditions like cluster headaches, although there isn’t any scientific evidence to back that up just yet.
To say that people who suffer from episodic cluster headaches are unfortunate is a gross understatement. They have to live under the constant threat of extreme pain that can strike anytime, anywhere. It can be life threatening in the sense of taking a major toll on quality of life and mental health. Whether the headaches occur at the same time each day or in an apparently random pattern, cluster headaches can be a hugely debilitating condition.
While the options for patients are incredibly limited, they are there and seem to be relatively effective. However, using strong medications on a very regular basis always results in side effects on other parts of our bodies, and should really be avoided if at all possible.
For this reason, it’s hoped that medical cannabis can play a part in treating cluster headaches, and all chronic pain conditions, in the future. For now though, it’s up to each individual to conduct their own research, gain as much knowledge and understanding as they can so that they can make an informed decision on whether or not medical cannabis is something that they want to explore.