Here’s some good news, really good news, and no, this isn’t a joke.
If you have never suffered from migraine or cluster headaches, drop to your knees each day in thanks. Lots of people have suffered and continue to suffer from these debilitating, agonizing conditions. For a long time there was no effective treatment.
Migraine and cluster headaches are related, but they’re not the same. A migraine is a powerful headache generally preceded by some kind of visual disturbance, often a blind spot filled with garish flashes like the spiky lights atop a carnival ride at night. It can last for days. Cluster headaches come in clusters, as the name implies. They typically arrive at the same time each day and last for several hours. Often their arrival is a couple of hours after the sufferer has gone to sleep.
Both can be almost unspeakably painful, with cluster headaches tending to be much more severe. Think of the headache you would get from chugging a frozen margarita. Now think of it lasting for hours. The pain is so severe that it has driven some people to suicide.
When you have a cluster headache or migraine, it owns you.
Both kinds of headaches involve pressure on the trigeminal nerve, though the mechanism is not well understood. And until fairly recently there was no effective treatment. A few decades ago a pharmaceutical compound, sumatriptan, was approved for treatment of migraine and cluster headaches, and in my experience it is very effective. It comes in injectable form as well as pills and nasal spray. I chose the spray, which works in about 15 minutes. The other methods take longer.
I keep some around for emergencies – and believe me, when you get whacked by a migraine or worse, a cluster headache, it’s a personal emergency. But the stuff is expensive: last time I filled a prescription it was $54 per squirt. Worth every penny, but still.
Sumatriptan, sold under the brand name Imitrex, is not a worry-free solution, though. No one is sure why it works. And the side effects can be severe – as in: they can kill you. (This is rare; it has never, for instance, killed me, and I’ve used it from time to time for two decades.)
Now. What I’m about to describe involves a research sample size of: me. N=1. But other research confirms what I found in my own little experiment 10 days ago.
The evening of Groundhog Day I experienced a visual disturbance which told me that soon I’d be owned by a full-blown migraine. My sumatriptan supply, though plentiful, had expired. I didn’t think that this would be a problem. I went online to confirm this, reading with my peripheral vision. (I should note that there are some additional, more subtle symptoms, among them worry: What if this time the medicine doesn’t work? What if the visual display never goes away? What if this time it’s a stroke or something?)
While I was looking sideways at web pages, I happened on a study that surprised the hell out of me. In a double-blind experiment, migraine sufferers reported that plain old ginger – yes, the stuff you get to make gingerbread – was just as effective as sumatriptan.
As it happens, I had some ginger, in the form of “gold kili Instant Honey Ginger Drink,” which I get in a bag of 20 individual packets for $3.99 at the Oriental Market on East State Street. My friend Marjorie introduced me to it years ago; she found it tasty and soothing as a hot drink on cold nights, especially when one has a cold.
So, with migraine pain en route, I decided it was time for a little experiment. I made a nice, warm cup of the stuff and eagerly consumed it. The pain arrived, but then… went away! It was all gone, as with Imitrex, in about 15 minutes. Which is to say the 20-cent packet of ginger drink was in my case as effective as a $54 dose of sumatriptan. Your results, as the television ad lawyers tell us, may vary.
(I have not tried it on cluster headaches, and I hope you’ll forgive my not wishing for the opportunity to do so, but the mechanisms are believed to be much the same, so there’s some likelihood that it will stop, or at least mitigate, those, too.)
There’s more. Sumatriptan, as I mentioned, has serious potential side effects. With few exceptions – those who may not consume ginger for one medical reason or another, even as some people may not safely consume grapefruit – ginger has no side effects much beyond some people not liking it.
I have to say that I was skeptical, until the ginger worked. Over the years I’ve gotten exposed to a lot of flaky treatments and cures to a lot of real and imagined conditions, offered by the attractive but flaky sorts of persons who used to appear in old “Herbal Essence” shampoo commercials. I’ve spoken with many people who offered remedies one sentence ahead of talking in strange hypnotic tones about their spiritual communication with Martians.
I’ve tried some of those remedies, and while I don’t think they did any harm, they did no discernible good, either.
Likewise, I’ve seen various claims that beet extract does something wonderful but vaguely described, that cranberries are good to treat serious ailments (beyond bladder infections), that mistletoe extract can help cure cancer, and so on. A willow extract was the precursor to aspirin, which is a bona fide wonder drug. So it’s not as if there’s no good stuff out there.
But there have also been snake-oil peddlers throughout history. And it is not true that that which does not kill you makes you stronger. That which does not kill you might leave you horribly crippled, or it might do nothing at all.
Far be it from me to know which claims have merit and which ones do nothing, and which ones make things worse. In this case, though, the danger was slight; I had another remedy on hand which definitely worked, as a fall-back, so why not give it a try?
I did. It worked. And if you suffer from migraine or cluster headaches, and there’s no medical reason why you mustn’t consume ginger, it might well work for you, too.
Which you’ll agree is good news indeed.