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A Theory of Cluster Headaches

Classic migraines, like fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and other psychosomatic disorders have no known physical etiology. They are all based in an over stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system, the fight, flight, or freeze response to perceived stressors. Cluster headaches are not in this class of disorders even though the symptomology is identical. Cluster headaches are identified by their peculiar pattern of appearing in high frequency over shorter periods of time and then going away for longer periods. Since most of biofeedback involves consciously allowing the sympathetic nervous system to back down through a process of passive volition based upon receiving precise data on the body’s state, cluster headaches are not as amenable to this safe, easy, and effective treatment. In addition the psychosomatic disorders are all amenable to treatment in learning to manage or cope with stressors while cluster headaches, not so much. While individual headaches can sometimes be associated with discrete triggers, like some migraines, the timing of overall clusters has appeared to be less associated with life circumstance. There is an association with the type of person who gets cluster headaches. It is usually men, often driven, with a tendency towards heavy smoking and drinking. Even though I fit this pattern it does not follow that it is caused by the smoking or drinking as for my case the cluster headaches preceded that behavior by many years. I believe cluster headaches are caused by a failure of the parasympathetic nervous system, the part that relaxes us. I believe that because of the drive to accomplish based in our consciousness we operate in more structured and less naturally cyclic manner and our parasympathetic nervous system becomes strained in maintaining homeostasis. Periodically the system becomes tapped out leading to very similar symptoms of sympathetic nervous system disregulation. 

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