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Martin Anderson
Research associate at the psychology department, Karlstads University Sweden
September 19, 2017 · 459 Reads

Self-treatment of headache disorders with psychedelic substances

Editor’s note: Researchers have observed how self-treatment of headache disorders by various psychoactive substances is discussed online. Primarily psychedelic tryptamines like LSD and psilocybin are reportedly effective for both migraine and cluster headache, also in otherwise treatment-resistant patients. Hopefully, these observations can lead to more research and the development of new and efficient treatments for these conditions.

Motivation behind the research:

Migraine is a common disorder that affects around 15% of the population worldwide and has a considerable impact on the suffering individual as well as societal costs. There are several subtypes of migraines, and the severity of the condition ranges from mild to highly debilitating.  Cluster headache is a more rare condition affecting about 1% of the population, but this condition can be particularly painful, debilitating and hard to treat. Around 20% of Cluster headache patients are resistant to the currently used medical treatments. There are also no currently used treatments that will lessen the frequency of attacks or fully cure the condition.

Cluster headache sufferers often find themselves in a very desperate and vulnerable situation with frequent and harrowing attacks and prescribed medications often comes with unpleasant side effects and unsatisfactory treatment results.

Our research team at the psychology department at Karlstad University has spent several years studying psychoactive drugs and the motivations for using them. In particular, we have focused on new and unclassified psychoactive substances sold and discussed on the web. Through this research, we have developed a research method where we use discussions from web-based drug forums as a data set for content analysis. Our studies have illustrated the many varying motivations and uses for psychoactive substances. One common use of various psychoactive substances is coping with, or even reportedly curing, of different disorders and ailments. We noticed an ongoing interest in self-treatment with psychoactive substances amongst sufferers of headache disorders, mainly by using psychedelic tryptamines like LSD, psilocybin and analog substances. A few previous studies have indicated the potential effectiveness of psychedelic tryptamines for headache disorders, and we wanted to add to these initial studies with a more in-depth qualitative study.

The Discovery

After finding proper forums and analyzing the discussions for recurring themes and patterns, we found that the psychedelic tryptamines were reportedly effective both prophylactically and for acute treatment in both clusters headache and migraines. Also, cannabis was reportedly effective for some users but appeared to make conditions worse or trigger attacks in other users.

Our study does not claim any exclusively new findings but more to provide a higher resolution comprehension of the vulnerable situation of sufferers of chronic headache disorders and their use of psychoactive substances for attempted self-treatment. We describe in detail, why, how and by which methods these substances are used and give an estimation of their potential effectiveness as well as possible adverse effects.

Study Limitations

The accuracy of individual reports utilized in the study cannot be guaranteed. However, the described effectiveness of psychedelic tryptamines does not appear to be based on selective reporting or drug romanticism. If skewed reporting was the culprit for the results, we suggest that the same would be presented for the uses of cannabis where the treatment results were reported as highly varying. The purity or concentration of ingested drugs is unknown. Therefore, the connection between dosage and effects could not be further elucidated in the study. The beneficial treatment results frequently appeared for both cluster headaches and migraines, but the nature of the data and methodology of the present study do not allow us to make any precise differentiations on the treatment response between the two disorders.

The Future

We hope our research will help raise awareness of the intense and desperate situation of the, sometimes treatment resistant, sufferers of headache disorders. Also, we hope that the web-based communities and support groups will be noted by patients with headache disorders and their relatives as well as by physicians and caregivers.

We will do more research on the motivations for using (new) psychoactive substances and to study the relationship between beneficial and problematic use of drugs in general.

Research Article: Psychoactive substances as a last resort—a qualitative study of self-treatment of migraine and cluster headaches, Harm Reduction Journal (2017).

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