Cluster Headaches and Fibromyalgia

cluster headaches

Image: Shutterstock/ Pathdoc

You might not have heard of cluster headaches, and if not, count yourself lucky. They’re easily among the most painful of all medical conditions. In fact, some call them “suicide headaches,” the idea being that the pain is so intense it drives people to suicide.

And as you might expect for a condition that seems to ruin your life in every possible way, they are pretty common in people with fibromyalgia. So what exactly are they? Why do they seem to be related to fibromyalgia? And most importantly, what can you do to treat them?

What are Cluster Headaches?

Cluster headaches are similar to migraines. Migraine headaches, like cluster headaches, tend to be regular, occurring several times a month. They often occur in a regular pattern several times a month as well. And both can be extremely painful. There are a few differences, however.

Migraines cause intense periods of pain located on one side of your head. Usually, the pain is throbbing and can be accompanied by nausea or even vomiting. The pain can last for hours to days and be debilitating.

Cluster headaches are a little bit different in terms of the pain. And this article from the Atlantic on the subject has some illuminating quotes:

  • “Someone’s jabbed a white-hot poker into your eye socket and is holding it there for 45 minutes to an hour and a half.”
  • “Like I just got shot in the face.”
  • “It’s like a papercut in my eye, in the center of my head.”
  • “A pain that’s so sharp and excruciating, there’s no talking or doing anything other than just screaming to try to get out of it.”

This intense pain is probably the most obvious symptom of these headaches, but the pain can be difficult to differentiate between other types of headaches when it comes to getting a diagnosis. So doctors look instead for some physical symptoms.

When you get a cluster headache, the pain tends to be placed right behind the eyeball. And the eye begins to redden and tear up. The nose may get congested as well, and many have likened the feeling to an intense pressure that feels as though it might push the eyeball out of the socket.

Again, it’s important to understand that these headaches are different from migraines. And the treatment for each condition is quite different. But it’s still interesting to note that both seem to be fairly common in people with fibromyalgia (around 40% have some form of chronic headache), which implies a link between all three conditions.

How are they Related to Fibromyalgia?

We know that chronic headaches are common in people with fibromyalgia. And we also know that people with chronic headaches and fibromyalgia seem to suffer more than people who just have chronic headaches. They consistently report a higher level of pain and comorbid conditions like depression that people with chronic headaches but not fibromyalgia.

The best theory to explain this is that people with fibromyalgia seem to be conditioned to experience pain more intensely. There’s something within the nervous system of fibromyalgia system that causes pain signals to be more severe than in people who don’t have the condition.

We also know that this kind of over-sensitization to pain is common in people with chronic headaches. So while we don’t know for sure why the conditions are connected, and won’t until we understand both conditions better, at the moment it’s enough to know that people with one are more likely to have the other.

How can you treat Cluster Headaches?

Treating these headaches is different that treating migraines. Migraines tend to get worse with exposure to light or sound, which is not the case with the cluster variety. So the classic migraine advice to lay down in a dark room doesn’t hold true with cluster headaches.

And there aren’t many medications that are effective when it comes to treating them. But there are two slightly unusual treatments that do show promise: oxygen and psychedelic drugs.

Most people who suffer from these headaches will swear by the efficacy of breathing from a tank of pure oxygen for relieving the worst of the pain. But unfortunately, because the effectiveness of oxygen for treating them aren’t well understood, getting your hands on an oxygen tank can be pretty difficult.

And that is doubly true for the other effective form of cluster headache treatment, LSD or psilocybin (popularly known as shrooms). Both are schedule 1 drugs in most of the world, which means they are very illegal, and no one can advocate the use of illegal drugs for treating any condition. But research has shown promising results for both drugs in treating cluster headaches. With luck and additional research, an effective treatment might be developed from these compounds that can offer relief from people suffering from one of the worst medical conditions you can possibly have.

But let us know, do you suffer from cluster headaches? Do you think they’re related to your fibromyalgia? What works for you? Tell us in the comments.