Relief for the terrible pain of “cluster headaches” could be on the horizon — if you go by the findings of two recent studies.
Cluster headaches are a type of head pain that recurs in varying patterns. For some people, they’ll come on every day for a period of weeks or months, and then they won’t occur for another set period. This is called an “episodic cluster headache.” For others, the head pain will stick around for a year or more, without any major breaks. This is a “chronic cluster headache.”
Other people will experience a combination of the two. Each individual headache can last from a few minutes to a few hours, with the average being 45 to 90 minutes. Strangely, for many people, they can occur around specific times of the day.
The pain can be sudden and severe. It usually manifests as a stabbing or burning pain, often around the eye area, on one side of the head. Other symptoms a cluster headache sufferer might experience include swelling or redness in and around the eye, tearing in the eye, and runny nose or congestion, all usually on the side of the face where the pain is. The pain of the headache, which can radiate up or down, often starts while a person is sleeping, especially during the REM stage. The pain is prompted by blood vessel dilation in the area around the eye, pressuring the “trigeminal nerve,” which sends out pain signals.
It’s thought that a malfunction in the hypothalamus portion of the brain could trigger this type of headache, but the mechanism is not fully understood as of yet. Risk factors include smoking, alcohol consumption, stress, certain foods, and sleep problems (sorry, but that nap could be doing you more harm than good!). In general, men are more susceptible to cluster headaches than women are.
This type of headache can be quite debilitating. Cluster headaches are frequently misdiagnosed so many people go for years without knowing what’s really going on with their health. Unfortunately, regular painkillers don’t seem to provide much relief and the stronger meds aren’t all that promising (besides, the frequency of the pain can rule narcotic painkillers out for many sufferers). Since there are not a lot of treatment options for this health condition, this is obviously a research area of great interest.
That’s where the two latest studies come in — and their findings are pretty intriguing.
In the first study, the research team implanted “occipital nerve stimulation” (ONS) devices in eight patients suffering from the chronic form of cluster headaches. The device is a neurostimulator that sends electrical impulses to the occipital nerve area — nerves located at the back of the neck and reaching various spots around the head — through some wires placed under the skin.
The results were fairly promising. Here’s how they were broken down: two study participants no longer experienced cluster headaches after follow-up at 16 months and 22 months; and three subjects had a decrease of 70% in frequency of headache occurrence. For all remaining seven study subjects (one left the trial after a few months), headaches were reduced an average of 50%.
In the second recent study on ONS and cluster headaches, researchers looked at another eight patients suffering from the ailment. Within 27 months (sometimes as soon as six months), 75% of the patients were very satisfied with the treatment results, saying that they would even recommend it to other cluster headache sufferers. Out of the eight study participants, two had an average 92.5% improvement, with the majority of the remaining subjects reporting moderate improvement and one claiming no beneficial effect.
In both studies, the patients had recurrences when the ONS device was not switched on or if the battery died, which means that a placebo effect was unlikely.
Although the studies are small and preliminary, they do provide direction for the treatment of cluster headaches. Another treatment, “hypothalamic deep brain stimulation,” has also been found to have benefits for cluster headache patients, but it has a dangerous side effect. ONS could be the safer way to help cluster headache sufferers. These studies will serve as the springboard for larger and longer- lasting trials on the treatment. I know that it sounds a little drastic to implant a device under your skin, but if you’ve experienced the stabbing pain of a cluster headache, and the inability to find relief, then you’ll understand just how intriguing these latest findings are.