Pain. Pain like you’ve never imagined.
Pain that robs you of reason. Pain that drives you to evil deeds. Pain the leaves no room for hope or peace or love for your fellow men. Pain that undoes you.
This kind of pain is called a cluster headache. If you are a faithful reader of this blog, then you already know about them. You will also know that I have been experiencing them, on and off, for about a decade now.
My last cluster occurred in 2017, and it lasted for 15 weeks. Going into 2020, I knew I was overdue for another cluster. And I was nervous, to say the least.
But this year is not 2017, and no two clusters are ever the same. The one consolation I had going into 2020 was knowing that nothing I could do would prevent this year’s cluster from happening, so there was no pressure for me to try anything desperate to prevent it.
Strange how agony is easier to bear when you know it’s not your fault.
In any case, this year’s cluster brought new experiences and new information, and I want to preserve them here. I realize this isn’t my usual subject matter but hope you will indulge me as I speak on a topic that deeply affects me.
This Year’s Cluster Was Different
The most important difference about this year’s headache cluster is that now I have more than 60,000 Twitter followers.
Because when have that much visibility, you can talk about your extremely rare medical condition and be discovered by others who are suffering with it. In 2017, I had 1000 followers, and barely anyone in my circle knew what cluster headaches were. My considerably larger Twitter reach today brought me to the attention of many fellow sufferers.
This is yet another advantage of having a large social media following. So add it to the list.
A Coronavirus Connection?
This year’s headaches were also miraculously milder than the ones I experienced in 2017, The first one I experienced as part of 2020’s cluster was so mild that I fell asleep in the middle of it. I was halfway to believing it was a dream.
The headaches got worse as the cluster went on, but they never reached the same heights of agony that they did in 2017 and years prior. Normally, a cluster headache feels like someone driving a steel skewer into my eye, with a hammer driving it deeper and deeper into my skull. This year it was more like someone jamming their thumb in my eye, blunt yet diffuse.
That may not seem like much of a difference to you, but believe me: it was night and day.
Furthermore, this year’s cluster lasted only 3 weeks. After experiencing a 15-week cluster in 2017, I was astounded at the early relief.
And the only reason I can imagine why this year’s cluster was so gentle is that perhaps it has something to do with the current pandemic.
Due to the economic slowdown spurred by the pandemic of 2020, the amount of particulates in the air has dropped drastically. And while no one knows for sure what triggers cluster headaches, air pollution has often been suggested as a contributing factor. I even met some others on Twitter who claimed their clusters were also milder this year.
I of course also talked to others who said this year’s cluster was worse for them than ever before. The effect of air pollution on cluster headaches remains a mystery. But it’s something to keep in mind.
Input from Around the World
The Twitter hivemind is unrivaled in its ability to generate ideas. Simply float a possibility into the forum, and you will get a multitude of suggestions from people of every expertise, seeking an answer with you.
While a number of people suggested useless ideas, such as remedies meant to treat everyday tension headaches or migraines (cluster headaches are not like either of these things and cannot be treated the same way), others gave firsthand experience not only of their sufferings, but of treatments that seemed to help.
One account told me his wife was a cluster headache sufferer, and that she had experienced great relief after a neurologist prescribed her lithium. Thankfully, my cluster this year was brief enough that I never had to see a doctor about it. But if I had, then I would have been able to ask them about the pros and cons of lithium.
Another layman told me he fights the headaches with a mixture of salt, water, magnesium, and zinc vitamins. I haven’t tried this method myself, but I am glad to know it exists. [This guy collects cluster headache solutions, and his site can be found here.]
And, of course, in the midst of the year’s cluster I found myself experimenting as well.
My Own Efforts
When a cluster headache strikes, you literally have nothing better to do than think of new ways to try fighting it. You’re certainly not going to to be thinking of anything else. Sleep is out of the question, and anything else is the equivalent of simply wallowing in the pain.
So once a headache has already begun, I start searching for ways to exorcise it.
For several clusters now, I’ve known that a hot bath can sometimes put an end to the headache. At the very least, it helps relieve the stress associated with the pain. (Twitter also taught me that soaking your feet in hot water is a common headache cure, which may be useful down the line).
So I’ve learned how to take hot baths at one in the morning. But this year brought me a few more discoveries.
The Way to a Man’s Headache is through His Neck
Constantly kneading the skin above the headache helps distract from the pain. But this year, I discovered that massaging my neck muscles occasionally stopped the headache.
Which makes sense, since neck issues can cause pain on the head and face. It’s possible that the trigger for cluster headaches is actually elsewhere on the body.
Which brings me to my last experiment.
The Thing That Worked
On the last night of this year’s cluster, I tried something different.
I sat up, like you would in a chair, and I looked directly at the ceiling, stretching my neck until it was completely taut. Basically, it was the same pose you use for looking at skywriting.
While in this position, the pain subsided. After staying in this position long enough, the pain stopped completely.
But, like I said, I only tried this on the last night of this year’s cluster. I never got a chance to try it a second time! And while I am grateful that this year’s cluster appears to be over, this puts me in a bit of a bind, as I will not be able to test and verify this potential treatment for another three years, at least.
I didn’t want to forget what I’d learned. So I wrote this blog post. In three years, I can read this and maybe form a strategy for dealing with the next cluster.
[UPDATE: The night after writing this post, I was struck with a small cluster headache (11 days after my previous one—go figure). Once it was in full swing, I tried the skywriting method. It only took 5-10 minutes to kill the headache. I am now convinced this is an effective method to stop cluster headaches.]
Stay Safe Out There
Luckily, cluster headaches affect only a teensy fraction of the population. Most people will simply never experience them (and no one should ever have to experience them).
As new information comes to light, and cluster headache sufferers connect with each other around the world, we might have a fighting chance against this medical condition, believed by some to be the most painful in existence.
Let’s make the next cluster easier than the last one.
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