Cluster headaches — or “suicide headaches’ as they’re known due to treatment-resistant sufferers who have killed themselves — are a little understood neurological disorder which crop up in a diverse cross-section of the population. No clear pattern along genetic lines is evident as yet, and there are currently very few potent and low side-effect pharmaceutical treatment options.

But LSD and psilocybin mushrooms have shown remarkable results in reducing or eliminating cluster headaches for weeks or months following a single treatment. The impact is life changing for sufferers. Among all the powerful and important uses of psychedelics, the incredible and immediate positive effect for cluster headache sufferers is potentially the most clear-cut and urgent.

 

A Clear-Cut Call To Action

We need to study the effect of powerful hallucinogens such as LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and psilocybin, the active ingredient in ‘magic’ mushrooms, on debilitating cluster headaches, researchers say.

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Their study, which points towards the effectiveness of these drugs, is published in the journal Neurology. It is the first formal look at reports of LSD’s therapeutic benefits in nearly 40 years, says Andrew Sewell of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. LSD was used extensively in psychiatric research in the 1960s, but as mainstream attitudes swung against ‘acid’, prohibitive measures made researching the beneficial effects of hallucinogens extremely difficult.

Looking Into Clusterbusting

Sewell and John Halpern, both of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center, decided to investigate. They interviewed 53 cluster-headache sufferers around the world who had self-administered psychedelics in an attempt to alleviate their symptoms. Medical records were checked to verify that they did indeed suffer from cluster headaches.

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This treatment, commonly referred to as ‘busting’ is a way of using hallucinogenic tryptamines such as psilocybin to relieve cluster headache. Many cluster headache sufferers, affectionately called “Clusterheads,” find that small, sub-hallucinogenic doses of these tryptamines can end cluster headache cycles and prevent entire cycles from starting.

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

It may seem extreme to resort to hallucinogens, but a cluster headache is nothing if not extreme. It’s been called the worst headache, or pain of any kind, known to medicine. It is also called suicide headache, as suicide is known as a thankfully-rare symptom. Many clusterheads facing this beast call it just that: The Beast.

Their results are startling: the majority (85%) of psilocybin users report that it aborted attacks better than oxygen, which stopped attacks for 52% of the patients surveyed. LSD and psilocybin were both better at preventing future attacks than conventional medicines.

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The authors note there are many potential sources of bias in this type of retrospective analysis: sufferers may be more likely to recall and report good experiences than bad, for example. “Many retrospective studies have shown strong effects that evaporated when studied properly, so we are inclined to take a skeptical stance,” says Sewell. Nonetheless, they say further research with controlled, randomized clinical trials is warranted.

A Little Bit Goes A Long Way

In the meantime, many sufferers are convinced of the psychedelic drugs’ utility. One patient, Bob Wold, started the Clusterbusters website to alert the community to the potential benefits and dangers of psychedelic drugs. For him, he says, a single dose every six months helps to stave off attacks. “I use psilocybin, and use just enough that I can feel the effects but don’t really hallucinate as people would expect.” The feeling, he says, is similar to what others might call a “two-beer buzz”.

Many medications are effective to some degree. High-volume pure oxygen, or triptans such as Imitrex injections are commonly used to relieve individual attacks. There are many treatments to prevent attacks, including verapamil, lithium and steroids; these vary in effectiveness and severity of side effects.

You Can’t Argue With Results

A 2006 Yale study published in the Neurology journal interviewed 53 people who used psilocybin or LSD to treat their cluster headaches. “Twenty-two of 26 psilocybin users reported that psilocybin aborted attacks; 25 of 48 psilocybin users and 7 of 8 LSD users reported cluster period termination; 18 of 19 psilocybin users and 4 of 5 LSD users reported remission period extension,” the study claims. “Research on the effects of psilocybin and LSD on cluster headache may be warranted.”

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In 2010, scientists followed up with a non-psychotropic chemical related to LSD and found that it was also effective in stopping cluster headaches. Researchers speculate that the substances work by shrinking the brain’s blood vessels, which stops the nerves from being pinched.

Illegal But Effective

There is one major catch to psychedelic cluster headache treatment, of course: Both psilocybin and LSD are strictly prohibited in the United States by the federal government, which considers them drugs of abuse with no medical value. That not only means that further research is difficult to perform, it also requires sufferers to break the law to acquire and use the substances, risking their freedom and their livelihood in order to try the only remedy that can put a stop to their misery.

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It is unclear how the drugs might work, though it is clear they affect the brain. LSD and psilocybin are types of amines called tryptamines, and their chemical structures are very similar to natural neurotransmitters such as serotonin. One conventional medicine for cluster headaches, Methysergide, is known to be chemically similar to LSD.