LSD and psilocybin may be effective treatments for cluster headaches,

LSD or psilocybin are two potential treatment options for cluster headaches. Image source: Max Pixel CC0.

A normal headache can make it difficult to get through your day. A migraine can stop you outright, forcing you to take time off work or cancel plans. But a cluster headache (CH) is even worse. They attack one side of the head, close to the eye, and the sensation is often described as being akin to having a pick or poker jammed through your eye. Sometimes, people who suffer from CH even resort to self-harm— banging their head against a wall or, in extreme cases, committing suicide—in search of relief. These headaches can last up to three hours at a time and, as the name implies, they come in clusters. This means that once you have one, you must prepare for days, weeks, or even months of these headaches coming and going until they finally subside.

There is good news, though—current studies strongly indicate that LSD or psilocybin therapy may be an effective, viable option for treating cluster headaches. And even if you don’t personally struggle with CH, the psychedelic community at large will benefit from supporting continued research into cluster headaches. After all, further research into this area could potentially help change the status of psychedelics to make them more widely recognized as therapeutic substances, thereby improving access to psychedelic therapy and promoting continued testing of psychedelics for treating a host of other ailments.

Psychedelics Decrease CH Symptoms and Break CH Cycles

Sometimes it seems like the therapeutic use of psychedelics is limited only by our imagination. But while creativity and thinking outside the box are important when discovering new uses for psychedelics, it’s much easier to get research funding and FDA approval to conduct studies when there is already concrete proof that the treatment will be effective. CH is one of the few ailments that has already had conclusive, positive research completed. A 2006 study showed that both LSD and psilocybin treatments were effective in stopping CH attacks, terminating further attacks, and extending the length of time between attacks. And although other ailments have also undergone positive psychedelic research trials, CH has a unique positioning that makes it easier to get approval for: there are no other effective treatments for CH currently on the market.  Having such solid research to back up requests for further research makes CH an easy entry point for researchers who want to learn more about the complex effects of psychedelics on the human brain.

Yet, despite these strong results, CH is not getting the research funding and support it deserves because it is a relatively rare condition which only affects 1-2 people out of every 1,000. Finding alternative treatments for cluster headaches is still important, though, and the medications currently available to reduce the symptoms of CH are often expensive, unreliable, and have a multitude of negative side effects. The lack of research funding combined with a need for alternative treatment creates a gap that psychedelic researchers could easily fill and, since it can be shown to be necessary research, it is more that governmental agencies will approve such studies.

CH Research and Brain Imaging

Besides exploring the effectiveness of psychedelics to address specific ailments, researchers are also attempting to understand how psychedelics function and the various ways they affect the brain. Because of this, research that requires significant brain imaging of participants while under the influence of psychedelics is particularly useful to the psychedelic research community.

At the moment, many psychedelic trials rely heavily on participant feedback because researchers want to know whether psychedelics effectively relieve psychological symptoms without a heavy emphasis on the mechanics of how the treatment may work. However, with CH, researchers are looking for specific treatment effects: the reduction of activity in the hypothalamus and the constriction of certain blood vessels in the brain during a CH attack. The easiest way to monitor such effects is through various forms of brain imaging—not participant feedback. This means that studies for CH treatment will likely provide a rich, detailed amount of information on how psychedelics affect human brains. The data produced by such studies can then be used to fuel many other areas of psychedelic research.  

Changing the Schedule of Psychedelics

Those who do not suffer from CH themselves may wonder why they should support such research. The simple answer is that CH research may be one of the quickest ways to get either LSD or psilocybin approved as viable medical substances for a range of conditions. Once these substances are recognized as having medicinal value, activists can petition to have them moved from Schedule I to Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act. Since Schedule I substances are assumed to have no medical value, it is difficult for researchers to obtain them and is impossible for doctors or therapists to prescribe them. While still tightly controlled, Schedule II substances are much easier to research and medicate with. Once the initial change in schedule is made, researchers will have more freedom to test psychedelics for other uses, such as for depression or anxiety. Plus, doctors and therapists will have the ability to prescribe psychedelics for more ailments, opening up exciting new avenues for psychedelic therapy.

Cluster headaches may not be the most prevalent or debilitating condition, but it would still be amiss to ignore the severe pain caused by these so-called “suicide headaches.” The general medical community should work to combat this ailment, and, judging from what research has already been completed, psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin will likely play a major role in creating a reliable treatment for CH. At the same time, it would certainly behoove the psychedelic community at large to recognize that further research in the field of psychedelic treatments for CH could be just the opening needed to help psychedelic therapy achieve the recognition it deserves. Through continued research and the positive effects of psychedelics on conditions such as CH, it is possible that psychedelics could soon be widely recognized as what they are—powerfully therapeutic substances with the potential to treat a wide range of challenging conditions.