Psychedelics for Cluster Headaches

Patrick Smith

January 2017

Cluster headaches are an excruciating form of headaches, that go beyond even the debilitating pain of migraines. Clinically a different type of headache altogether, they are characterized by severe, intense pain focused on one side of the head.

An episode can last several hours and can reoccur within a short time period, even several times within the same day. Around 1 in 500 people suffer from cluster headaches, and some report that their headaches are more painful than childbirth.

Because we don’t really understand what causes cluster headaches, treating them is difficult. Current treatments are expensive, unpleasant or impractical – such as inhaling from an oxygen tank or frequent injections. Many medicines cause unpleasant side effects including heart problems and gum disease. An estimated 10-20% of sufferers can’t find any relief from typical treatments.

Message boards are full of descriptions of the horrible side effects and downsides of typical treatments for cluster headaches.

From the exorbitant cost and impracticality of storing gallons of medicine or oxygen tanks, to unpleasant side effects including heart problems, sufferers of cluster headaches have no easy solution to their condition.

Even if they find something that works, like high-flow oxygen, it can often stop working entirely for no apparent reason. Here are just a few examples of how ineffective current medications can be:

“I have been a [cluster headache] sufferer for 30 years. I am lucky enough to be episodic. I am in a cycle now… had a 6 year reprieve. I thought I knew these beasts but they change every time they come back. […] I am currently without insurance but have borrowed enough [money] to get oxygen. It is not aborting like it did in 2002, my last cycle.”

“Verapamil which worked in the past is making them worse now. Ended in a saturday night with four Imitrex needle sticks. Went to emergency room on Sunday, oxygen got me through one attack and the doctor gave me more prednisone to keep the attacks at bay until I could see a specialist.”

“I have had [cluster headaches] for 12 years, the last 5 of which have been chronic. Up to August 2015 I was taking Verapamil (doses of around 800mg daily) as a preventative and Sumatriptan and oxygen as aborters. The Verapamil was becoming less effective and the side effects were becoming more problematic. I was needing to take breaks from the [Verapamil] which meant my cluster attacks were increasing to 3-5 a day (approx 3 hours each left untreated) , which meant that my triptan use was becoming dangerously high.”

Psychedelics Could Offer Hope

New evidence suggests that LSD and psilocybin could treat cluster headaches more effectively than any current medications. A group of researchers surveyed nearly 500 sufferers of cluster-headaches asking them about their typical medication habits.

Users of psilocybin reported that it was as effective as the leading treatments at aborting cluster headaches after they’d already begun – but more remarkably, both psilocybin and LSD were more effective than any other medication at preventing cluster headaches. No serious side effects were reported from the use of either of these psychedelics, used on average about once every few weeks (much less frequently than typical medication).

Adapted from Schindler et al (2015)

The quantitative results of this survey are backed up by accounts of message board users too, who report on the beneficial effects of psychedelics, often after suffering for many years and attempting various pharmaceuticals:

“I’ve been a clusterhead for 8 years now, 5 of them were undiagnosed! After 2 years of countless meds that never worked I found out about magic mushrooms and the possibility of helping with cluster headaches! At the end of my rope I figured what the hell? If it killed me at least I wouldn’t be in pain anymore. I ate them and I was reborn! The pain was gone […] I went a week with nothing, no pain or shadows, but then it came back. I ate more and my cluster was completely gone for 1 year”

“Shrooms are the only preventative I’ve had any success with. I dose about every 2 months.”

“A few months ago [my dad] tried the self treatment outlined on clusterbusters.org. What the hell, it couldn’t hurt nearly as much as some botox behind the eye. After his first dose, he slept through the night for the first time in weeks! And after that, they didn’t come back, and still haven’t! It has been over 3 months, and dad hasn’t even had as much as an aura of the beast.”

“Psilocybin and LSD are more effective than any other medication at preventing cluster headaches.”

Tripping Not Necessary

If tripping your face off is not an enticing prospect for a sufferer of cluster headaches, there is the option of taking 2-bromo-LSD (or BOL), a non-hallucinogenic form of LSD, which also had good results in the above survey.

This drug has been used to treat sufferers in Germany, thanks to a compassionate law, and has shown some amazing results. In an interview with The Daily Beast, study co-author Dr John Halpern says, “One patient had cluster headaches for 27 years. He had debilitating 3-month long cycles, and wasn’t responding to meds. He was devastated. He was getting 40 cluster headaches a week.”

The patient then took BOL, and was headache free for 17 months. “This drug appears to shut cluster headaches down and puts patients into remission” said Halpern. “It’s astounding.”

Psychedelic Pain Relief

If you suffer from cluster headaches, and can’t find relief from typical medications, it’s worth trying a dose of LSD or psilocybin to see if they could prevent your headaches, or even abort them after they’ve begun. The website clusterbusters.org is full of people with stories of the benefits they’ve found in psychedelics. Here at The Third Wave, we’ve even had an anecdotal report of a cluster headache sufferer using microdoses of LSD to successfully reduce the occurrence of their headaches!

It’s looking like psychedelics could be a remarkable form of treatment for these debilitating headaches.

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