Natural Treatment for Cluster Headaches

April 10, 2014 by Michael Greger M.D. in News with 6 Comments

Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster Headaches?

In a study “Secretion, Pain and Sneezing Induced by the Application of Capsaicin to the Nasal Mucosa in Man,” researchers found that if we cut a hot pepper and rub it inside our nostrils, our nose will start running, hurting, and we’ll start sneezing (capsaicin is the burning component of hot peppers). Why would anyone do this experiment? Anyone who’s handled hot peppers knows if it gets up your nose it causes an intense burning sensation. However, the researchers noted, “this phenomenon has not been formally investigated.” So they decided it “appeared worthwhile to study the effects produced by the topical application of capsaicin in the human [nose].” It appeared worthwhile because… it had never been done before.

So they took some medical students, dripped some in their nose and the poor students started sneezing, burning, and snotting — describing the pain at about eight or nine on a scale of one to ten. No surprise, but here’s the interesting part: What happened when they repeated the experiment the next day? You’d think they might be sensitized to it, still all irritated, so it might hurt even worse, but no–it hurt less. Then they did it again the next day and the next. By day five it hardly hurt at all, they didn’t even get a runny nose. Day ten, and still nothing.

Were they permanently numbed? No. After a month or so the desensitization wore off and they were back in agony whenever they tried rubbing it in their nose. What the researchers think is happening is that the pain fibers, the nerves that carry pain sensation, dumped so much of the pain neurotransmitter (called substance P) that they ran out. Day after day of this, the nerves had exhausted their stores and could no longer transmit pain messages until they made more from scratch, which took a couple weeks. This gave researchers an idea.

There’s a rare headache syndrome called cluster headache. It has been described as one of the worst pains humans experience. Few, if any, medical disorders are more painful. It’s nicknamed the “suicide headache” because patients often consider taking or have taken their lives over it.

It’s thought to be caused by arterial dilation putting pressure on the trigeminal nerve in the face. Treatments involve everything from nerve blocks to Botox to surgery. But that same nerve goes down to the nose. What if we cause the whole nerve to dump all its substance P?

Same as before, daily capsaicin was applied in the nose and by day five, they could hardly feel it any more. As seen in my video, Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster Headaches?, what the wimpy medical students rated as an eight or nine on the pain scale, those used to the violence of the cluster headache attacks rated a three or four. So, after having achieved desensitization, what happened to their headaches?

Cluster headaches are one-sided headaches; there’s only pain on one side of the head. Those who rubbed capsaicin in the nostril on the opposite side of the head had nothing happen. They started out having around 40 attacks a day, and a month later the headaches were still going strong. Those that rubbed capsaicin in the nostril on the side of the head where the headaches were, cut the average number of attacks in half, and in fact half the patients were cured–the cluster headaches were gone completely. All in all, 80% responded, which is at least equal to if not better than all the current therapies out there.

This extraordinary effect reminds me of the findings in Lavender for Migraine Headaches.

Headache sufferers may additionally want to experiment with avoiding potential triggers such as aspartame (see my video Diet Soda and Preterm Birth). Saffron may also help with headaches (Saffron for the Treatment of PMS), and so might avoiding certain parasites (Pork Tapeworms on the Brain and Avoiding Epilepsy Through Diet). A note of caution, though: Pregnant migraine sufferers seeking natural remedies should be wary of advice they may get (Dangerous Advice From Health Food Store Employees).

Those eating healthy diets are less likely to be on pain medications in general (Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants). See, for example:

Might the consumption of hot peppers also successfully desensitize the gut? Find out in my video, Cayenne Pepper for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2014 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image credit: Soumayadeep Paul / Flickr

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Dr. Michael Greger

About Michael Greger M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.

View all videos by Michael Greger M.D.

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  • Em Crone

    That is so crazy, but also awesome :)

  • Martha Jones

    Hi Dr. Greger I helped my brother stop his cluster headaches (he had contemplated suicide previous they were so bad). Since I knew that herpes had been found to be involved in arteriosclerosis and I knew what aggravated my own fever blister outbreaks (I can only eat high arginine nuts if I stay away from dairy). I believe the milk products stimulate some kind of autoimmune overreaction; certainly in myself dairy causes some kind of blister forming overreaction – perhaps related to the mucus they.produce. So I surmised that herpes in his arteries could be causing swelling and pressure. Be that as it may I told him to stop smoking and give up dairy (and animal foods in general) and the cluster headaches he usually had a couple times a month, lasting in 3-6 months cycles, went away permanently until he died over 5 years later from a heart attack (he had gone back to animal foods as a result of the influence of a relationship with someone who liked to go out to eat fast foods a lot) sigh. I think they will eventually find the connection; anyway I think you are a nutritional genius thank you so much for all your efforts.

    • Thea

      Martha: Great job figuring that out. I’m sorry you lost your brother. You made a significant difference in his life. I’m sure he appreciated you greatly.

      Thanks for sharing your story!

  • Gadea

    I used to suffer from migraine headaches.
    Several years ago, I was in a NYU headache study,
    hospitalized for a week.
    All the medications I had to take, including one that was a pen
    injection, had side effects.
    My son, was into vitamin supplements, and who go to the
    India store to get spices that he used as medicine.
    He brought me Turmeric Extract and Magnesium from
    Vitamin Shop. I took them and my headache lifted, it went away,
    and I did not feel woozy, or lightheaded, like I did with the medications.
    That was over a decade ago, I am still taking Turmeric Extract
    and Magnesium and have never had another migraine headache.
    The migraines lasted for days and I seriously thought that death
    was better than the pain.

  • Mitch Earleywine
  • dar

    Re: ‘ “suicide headache” ‘…caused by arterial dilation putting pressure on the trigeminal nerve in the face.’
    FYI- our dog died& that’s when the TMJ began…being hit by a car/falling out of a tree was nothing compared to the kaleidoscope of pain that ensued…after a month, the mechanic’s part of my brain kicked in: it takes 43 muscles to frown and 17 to smile…turned that dead dog eared frown upsidedown…hasta la vista TMJ. Those 43 muscles not only bear down on the hefty tmj , but on the fragile nerves as well…what came first, the chicken or the egg,eh?

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