The Devil and The Barbell – How weightlifting helps me fight cluster headaches

In late August/early September of 2009 I went dove hunting with my dad. We were out at one of the old farms he used to own, he’s been retired for a few years at this point, and not able to hit anything. A couple of nearby hunters pepper us with their bb’s by accident and all around it was a pretty lackluster hunting session. I remember wondering if we were still going to be able to do this every year, I was leaving to college the next year and the old farms just seemed to get worse for it every year.

Sometime around 8 am we decided to head back home and I was ready to go back to sleep, like any respectable 17 year old. I’m pretty sure all I had for breakfast thus far in the day was Dr. Pepper and potato chips. When we got home my dad quickly changed and left to go run errands with my mom, I promptly fell back asleep.

An hour or so later I woke up. I felt an unfamiliar twinge behind my left eye. I figured it might be the way I slept or dehydration so I walked to the kitchen to get some water. In those 20 steps the pain grew exponentially. By the time I reached the kitchen I thought my head was going to collapse and explode all at once. All I could think was “This is really weird, why am I hurting so much!?” Knowing nothing about anything I began to think embolism, stroke, brain tumor, etc…

The pain kept mounting consistently, past the point of anything I had felt prior and just kept climbing. I began to scream but there wasn’t anyone in the house to hear me. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening to me and I was beginning to panic. The next thing I remember is going into my shower and alternating between hot and cold hoping that something would alleviate the pain I was experiencing. Without relief I stumbled out of the shower and called my parents begging them to come home now, I had no idea what was going on.

I don’t remember much after that until my parents were waking me up. I felt hungover, my mouth tastes like vomit and I still had no idea what happened. My father proceeded to ask me a few leading questions about what went on. In the end he told me “I hate to say it but that sounds like you had a cluster headache.”

The following two months were my first episode of cluster headaches. I was very lucky to have a father that had experience with these headaches, he had them for about 25 years, and could really sympathize with what was happening. Despite this, no matter how much my parents were there for me nothing ever prepared me for the next headache. We were looking for any meds, supplements or tricks that could help.

Over the next four years in college I was typically struck with 2-3 episodes a year. I learned that stress and quick changes in weather were both big triggers for me. At this point I viewed these headaches like the super villain “Doomsday.” Every time I learned a new way to help me cope with the headaches and get through it it’d only work in that cycle. If hot showers helped this time next time they wouldn’t, if chugging cold water did the trick it wouldn’t next year. This pattern persisted through everything I tried, and believe me I’ve tried a lot to quell these headaches.

By the time I was 22 I was resorting to prescription pain killers to numb the pain, sumatriptan injections 2-3x a day, and a whole host of other attempts to fix it. But alas every time something helped alleviate headaches in this cycle, the headaches would be immune to in the next. It felt like I was in a constant arms race with my own brain.

After college finding a regular job did not come immediately. I ended up moving back in with my folks for a few months. With no money and being stuck back at home I discovered an old weight set in one of the back rooms. Nothing fancy just a couple of dumbbells, a bar and about 120 lbs in little plates. So out of boredom I began to lift everyday.

Prior to this my lifting experience was rather spaced and sporadic in my life and at the time I was mostly just running and doing plyometric exercises. There was something cathartic about lifting at this point in my life. It gave me something to structure my day around: wake up, eat cereal, lift weights, apply for jobs, eat more cereal. I was regularly sleeping 8-9 hours, maintaining a regular schedule, eating more and feeling better than I ever had.

Fast forward a few months and I landed a very fun job where I met some very dear friends of mine. We all initially clicked because we were all in a similar situation: living at home, trying to make it out and lifting was like the glue that made us all stick together. Eventually one of these friends became my roommate; for the year we lived together everyday was work, gym, eat and sleep (and the occasional partying session). But never before had I been so focused on my own health or had a friend doing the same.

At the end of this year of living a very stereotypical life of a weightlifting bachelor 23-24 year old I realized something: it had been nearly two years since I had a headache cycle. I never actually found a solution to my headaches, I somehow made them a non-issue.

Taking another small time jump forward: I had just moved into my house with my fiancée. At this point I had not had a headache in nearly 30 months. Moving in took about 10 days in total because we had to paint every room and make sure everything was cleaned before we put our stuff in. Over these ten days I went from going to the gym 4-5 times in 7 days to going 1-2 times in 10 days, just because there was a lot of work to do. We had to order out a lot for food and would typically stay up later than normal finishing up our projects. On one of the final days of cleaning I was vacuuming out a vent and got blasted by a wave of fine dust that was likely 20 years older than I am. I sneezed a lot but overall seemed to be fine.

Later that night I woke up in the middle of the night with a familiar and dreadful twinge. I sat up quickly and drank some water; hoping I was dehydrated or any other sort of problem. The feeling faded and I was able to go back to sleep, albeit with 3 pillows to prop my head up. Every night for the next week had some sort of experience similar to this with undulating intensities. Then it broke.

After about one week of being teased in my sleep I woke up an hour after going to sleep and I knew what it was, this wasn’t the twinge, the forewarning, the false alarm, this was another headache and I was starting a new episodic cycle.

I don’t think my fiancée ever saw me scream out in pain before that (besides a “damn it!” After stubbing a toe or something). She stayed up with me, comforting me, waiting out the headache as I whimpered, broke down and thrashed about until the intensity waned an hour later. She told me we’d take the next day off work and get breakfast at my favorite place, she really knows how to cheer me up.

The next three weeks were filled with staying at home trying to sleep in one hour increments before another headache kicks in (in case you don’t know: with cluster headaches sleeping will typically trigger particularly painful session). I tried to capitalize on my sumatriptan injections by using them to eliminate a headache and then be able to sleep for 4 hours before it’d wear off.

All this time I was trying to get some weightlifting sessions in but it was very futile; I was afraid to get behind the wheel to drive to the gym and afraid to leave the house alone in general so I was left with the small amount of weights I had at my house. I knew keeping it up would help but soon I was running on minimal sleep and energy was sparse.

One night I had a particularly nasty headache strike and couldn’t take another sumatriptan shot for 6 hours. I tried scalding hot showers over my head, freezing cold water on my body, crushing acetaminophen into a powder and dissolving it into a solution I could drink. As with all of these headaches I was dumbfounded by the fact that it quickly became my most painful experience and just kept climbing. I was close to panicking and my fiancée was doing her best to calm me.

I remember feeling very angry with this headache and for some reason I just stopped. I stopped moving, I shut my eyes and held my hands in a meditative pose. I focused only on my breath letting the experience of each wave of pain come and go. I started with 4 second exhales, then 6, and kept progressing until my exhales took 30 seconds. As my breath got longer and longer I disconnected from the violent pain in my head. It was still there and I could almost see it as waves of color inside my eyelids but as long as I kept my breath slow the pain would be more manageable and start to go out.

I came out of it with my fiancée looking a tad freaked out with me and I tried to explain what happened. I felt like I found a way to take the headache on directly and I won. I felt amazing, like a rush of endorphins was washing over me.

Over the next two weeks I would try to recreate this experience with each headache, sometimes I’d win and sometimes I’d lose but I felt like I was beginning to regain some control. Soon after I was to slow my breath before I’d go to sleep which translated into me sleeping longer. This “battling the headache” technique turned the tide for me and let me feel human again.

Since then anytime I’ve had as much as a twinge or shadow of a headache I stop what I’m doing and take a little time to meditate on it and slow my breath. It has been a full year since my last episode and the meditation technique has worked well to ward off any other new episodes from arriving in addition to weightlifting.

So by now you might be thinking “if meditation is what helped you how does this relate to weightlifting?” Well the benefits of lifting in regards to cluster headaches are both direct and indirectly.

Directly weightlifting changes a lot about the way your body handles hormones and neurotransmitters. Weightlifting can increase testosterone levels which low T has been suggested as a possible trigger for cluster headaches. Weightlifting also has a positive impact on the production of serotonin which is the neurotransmitter believed to be responsible for why psilocybin or LSD might be a good treatment option for cluster headache sufferers.

Indirectly: weightlifting takes long term goal setting, short term sacrifices and discipline. It doesn’t take long before this translates into better eating and sleeping habits which translates into a healthier life overall. The importance of a solid eating and sleeping routine cannot be understated for dealing with cluster headaches.

Lastly, but still indirectly, weightlifting cultivates focus. Focus that I was able to employ to slow my breath to the point I could disconnect from the pain, which is a huge deal for these headaches! This isn’t the kind of pain you can just “toughen up and block out.” It’s exploding from a place in your brain that is deeper than most pains you’ll ever experience and you need to be able to go deeper than it to disconnect it.

A bit about the “meditation”

I’m not very new age when it comes to medicine. I don’t think there are herbs and balms that will work as well as cold hard pharmaceuticals. I do think “natural” methods are better in prevention of medical issues but not really for their treatment. Unfortunately the word “meditation” has the connotation of something alternative to regular medicine, this is simply meditation in the most literal physical meaning of the word. That being said: I do think this meditative technique has some promise.

The big problem with it is that if you lose focus the pain gets away from you in a big way and it’s hard to regain control. It’s a lot like trying to put out a fire by smothering it with your hands (and you’re wearing flame retardant gloves). You can keep smothering it and eventually win out but if an air pocket opens in your hands then the flame might reignite from that small but of oxygen. It takes practice and you are going to lose some of the fights you have with it but stick with it and you might actually beat down your headaches.

Here’s how I do it:

I start out standing, I brace my posture thoroughly (butt is contracted, shoulders are tight and core is braced) and hold my hands to my chest. With my eyes shut I take in some big breaths through my nose and then I start to count. At first I make each exhale last for a count of 4 and slowly increase it, don’t worry about counting the inhales, this the part that takes all the focus. The pain is going to feel like waves bashing down on top of your head and is going to be very distracting but you need to push through.

When I get to a count of 15 it gets a little easier to block out the pain. Once it feels a bit easier I try to focus on where the exhale is originating. Feeling it in my throat originally and following it deeper as the counts get longer. Usually by the time the headache has ended I feel as though my breath is originating from the pit of my stomach.