Cluster headache is one of the most painful conditions that has lead some patients call it a suicide headache. A new observational study done by researchers at the Eli Lilly company and Stanford University was presented at the recent annual scientific meeting of the American Headache Society.

Considering that cluster headaches are relatively rare, the major strength of this study is its size – 7589 patients. These patients were compared to over 30,000 control subjects without headaches. We’ve always known that cluster headaches are more common in men with previous studies indicating that male to female ratio is between 5:1 and 3:1. However, only 57% of patients in this new report were males. This does not reflect my experience – I see at least five times as many men as women. It is possible that I underdiagnose cluster headaches in women or the study used unreliable data. In fact, the study data was collected from insurance claims, so I suspect that the truth is closer to my experience and to the older published data.

The study did find that thoughts of suicide were 2.5 times more common in patients with cluster headaches compared to controls, while depression, anxiety and sleep disorders were twice as common. Cluster headache patients also were 3 times more likely to have drug dependence. The most commonly prescribed drugs were opiates (narcotics) in 41%, which partially explains high drug dependence rates, steroids, such as prednisone (34%), triptans, such as sumatriptan (32%), antidepressants (31%), NSAIDs (29%), epilepsy drugs (28%), blood pressure drugs, such as verapamil (27%), and benzodiazepines, such as Valium or Xanax (22%).

It is very unfortunate that over a period of one year only 30% of patients were prescribed drugs recommended for cluster headaches. We know that narcotics and benzodiazepine tranquilizers are not very effective and can lead to dependence and addiction. Drugs that are effective include a short course of steroids (prednisone), sumatriptan injections, blood pressure drug verapamil (often at a high dose), some epilepsy drugs and occasionally certain antidepressants. The report did not mention oxygen, which can stop individual attacks in up to 60% of cluster headache sufferers. Nerve blocks and to a lesser extent, Botox injections can also provide lasting relief. It is possible that the data on oxygen, nerve blocks and Botox was not available.

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Sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG) block has been used for the treatment of headaches and other pain conditions for over 100 years. The original method involved placing a long Q-tip-like cotton swab dipped in cocaine through the nose and against the SPG.

SPG is the largest collection of nerve cells outside the brain and it sits in a bony cavity behind the nasal passages. These nerve cells are closely associated with the trigeminal nerve and include sensory nerves, which supply feeling to parts of the head and autonomic nerves, which regulate the function of internal organs, blood vessels, as well as tearing and nasal congestion. Considering that these nerve cells produce such a wide range of effects, it is logical to expect that blocking these nerves might help headaches.

For obvious reasons we no longer apply cocaine, but instead use numbing medicines, such as lidocaine or bupivacaine. A small study suggested that just putting lidocaine drops into the nose can relieve an acute migraine. I’ve prescribed lidocaine drops to some patients with cluster headaches and a small number reported relief. The problem with nasal drops is that we are not sure if lidocaine actually reaches all the way back to numb the SPG even if they are lying down with the head hanging back over the edge of the bed. Using long Q-tips is uncomfortable and in many patients the Q-tip may also not reach the SPG.

To solve the problem, two doctors developed thin intranasal catheters that appear to consistently reach the area of SPG. Dr. Tian Xia’s Tx360 device seems to be more comfortable for patients because his is a thinner and a more flexible catheter. The recommended local anesthetic is bupivacaine (Marcaine), which lasts longer than lidocaine. A small double-blind study of SPG block using Tx360 in chronic migraine patients showed it to be effective. The active group had a reduction of the Headache Impact Test (HIT-6) score, while the placebo group did not. In this study patients were given the SPG block twice a week for 6 weeks. We need larger and longer-term studies in chronic migraine patients before advising such frequent regimen, not in the least because of cost.

SPG block seems to be more appropriate (and this is what we use it for at the NYHC) for patients with an acute migraine that does not respond to oral or injected medications and for those with cluster headaches. Since cluster headaches usually last for a few weeks to a couple of months (unless it is a patient with chronic cluster headaches), it is practical to try SPG blocks on a weekly basis. Theoretically, because there is so much autonomic nervous system involvement in cluster headaches (tearing, nasal congestion, and other), SPG should be particularly effective for cluster headaches.

Another way to affect the SPG is by stimulating it with electrical current, which seems to be effective for chronic cluster headache patients, according to a small study. This method requires surgical implantation of a device into the area of the SPG. See my previous post on this.

Below is an illustration of the SPG and the Tx360 device.

Sphenopalatine ganglion block with  Tx360 device

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Since my early 20s I’ve been getting visual auras without a headache several times a year. I still get them in my late 50’s and they still occur without a headache. In my 40s I started to have migraine headaches without an aura. My migraines are always left-sided and if I don’t treat them, I will develop sensitivity to light and nausea. Luckily, my migraines are not at all disabling because they remain mild for hours, so I have plenty of time to take 100 mg of sumatriptan, which works very well. The tablet works within one to two hours. When I want to have faster relief, I take a 6 mg sumatriptan injection. This usually happens at night when I want to go to sleep and I don’t want to wait for the pill to start working. I can’t fall asleep with a migraine, while for some, sleeps actually relieves the attack.

I am not happy about having migraines, but they do not interfere with my life and give me a better understanding of what my patients are going through. Also, I try to subject myself to treatments I offer my patients. I do not need to take a daily preventive medicine, such as topiramate or propranolol or Botox injections. However, since Botox is very safe, I did inject myself with Botox once to see what it feels like. It was not very painful, but obviously everyone has a different pain threshold (here are video 1 and video 2 of me injecting patients with Botox). I also gave myself an intravenous infusion of magnesium, which did make me feel warm, but had no beneficial effects since I am not one of the 50% of migraine sufferers who are deficient in magnesium.

The next thing I decided to try is a nerve block. Nerve blocks are injections of a local anesthetic, such as lidocaine or bupivicaine to numb the nerves around the scalp (here is a previous blog on nerve blocks). It is somewhat surprising that numbing a superficial nerve under the skin stops a migraine, which we know to originate in the brain. For the same reason a lot of scepticism greeted me at medical meetings over 20 years ago when I gave lectures on Botox for migraines. Now we know that although the migraine process begins in the brain, peripheral nerves send messages back to the brain closing a vicious cycle of brain activating the nerves and nerves feeding back pain messages into the brain. Disrupting this circuit with a peripheral nerve block for short-term relief and with Botox for long-term prevention seems to be very effective. Nerve blocks can be effective when drugs are not or when drugs are contraindicated because of an illness or pregnancy.

Sometimes, blocking the occipital nerve at the back of the head works well, but other patients need nerves blocked in their temples or forehead. Since my migraines are always localized to the left temple, I decided to give myself a block of the temporal branch of the left trigeminal nerve. The nerve block helped one of two times I tried it. Obviously, I do not recommend DIY nerve blocks or teach patients how to do it, but I did encounter one patient who learned how to give himself an occipital nerve block before coming to see me. There might be some exceptions, such as for people living in remote areas and who do not respond to any other treatments, or in not such distant future, for those traveling to Mars.

The next treatment I will try is a sphenopalatine ganglion block. I will describe this treatment in my next post.

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