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Hot Sauce in the Nose for Cluster Headaches?

In a study entitled Secretion, Pain and Sneezing Induced by the Application of Capsaicin to the Nasal Mucosa in Man, researchers found that if you cut a hot pepper and rub it inside your nostrils, your nose will start running, hurting, and you’ll start sneezing (capsaicin is the burning component of hot peppers). Why would anyone do this experiment? Anyone who’s handled hot peppers knows if it gets up your nose it causes an intense burning sensation, however, the researchers note, “this phenomenon has not been formally investigated.” So they decided it, “appeared worthwhile to study the effects produced by the topical application of capsaicin in the human [nose].” It therefore appeared worthwhile because… it had never been done before?

So they took some medical students, dripped some in their nose and they started sneezing, burning, and snotting — describing the pain at about 8 or 9 on a scale of 1 to 10. No surprise, but here’s the interesting part. What do you think happened when they repeated the experiment the next day? You’d think they might be sensitized to it, still all irritated, so it might hurt even worse, but no–it hurt less. Then they did it again the next day and the next. By day 5 it hardly hurt at all, they didn’t even get a runny nose, no sneezing. Came back the next week, day 10 and still nothing.

Sheesh, were they permanently numbed? No. After a month or so the desensitization wore off and they were back in agony whenever they tried rubbing it in their nose. What the researchers think is happening is that the pain fibers, the nerves that carry pain sensation, dumped so much of the pain neurotransmitter called substance P that they ran out. Day after day of this the nerves had exhausted their stores and could no longer transmit pain messages until they made more from scratch, which took a couple weeks. This gave researchers an idea.

There’s a rare headache syndrome called cluster headache. It has been described as one of the worst pains humans experience. Few, if any, medical disorders are more painful. It’s nicknamed the “suicide headache” because patients often consider taking or have taken their lives over it.

It’s thought to be caused by arterial dilation putting pressure on the trigeminal nerve in the face. Treatments involve everything from nerve blocks to Botox to surgery. But hey, that same nerve goes down to the nose. What if we cause the whole nerve to dump all its substance P?

Same as before, daily capsaicin was applied in the nose and by day 5 they could hardly feel it any more. You’ll note in the above video that as cluster headache sufferers, what was rated as an 8 or 9 on the pain scale by the wimpy medical students was like, maybe a 3 or 4 by those used to the violence of the cluster headache attacks. Having achieved desensitization, what happened to their headaches?

Custer headaches are one-sided headaches: you only get pain on one side of your head. Those who rubbed capsaicin in the opposite nostril on the wrong side of the head had nothing happen. They started out having like 40 attacks a day and a month later the headaches were still going strong. Those that rubbed  capsaicin in the nostril on the side of the head where the headaches were cut the average number of attacks in half, and in fact half the patients were cured–the cluster headaches were gone completely. All in all 80% responded, which is at least equal to if not better than all the current therapies out there.

This extraordinary effect reminds me of the findings in Lavender for Migraine Headaches.

Headache sufferers may additionally want to experiment with avoiding potential triggers such as aspartame (see my video Diet Soda and Preterm Birth). Saffron may also help with headaches (Saffron for the Treatment of PMS), and so might avoiding certain parasites (Pork Tapeworms on the Brain and Avoiding Epilepsy Through Diet). A note of caution, though: Pregnant migraine sufferers seeking natural remedies should be wary of advice they may get (Dangerous Advice From Health Food Store Employees).

Those eating healthy diets are less likely to be on pain medications in general (Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants). See, for example:

Might the consumption of hot peppers also successfully desensitize the gut? Find out in my video Cayenne Pepper for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

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Read more: Health, Diet & Nutrition, Eating for Health, General Health, Headaches, Mental Wellness, Videos, , , , ,

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Dr. Michael Greger

A founding member of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker on nutrition, food safety, and public health issues. Currently Dr. Greger serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States. Hundreds of his nutrition videos are freely available at


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2:20AM PST on Nov 9, 2013


3:15PM PST on Nov 8, 2013

I get cluster headaches-much worse than migraines-as I've had them for years.....but hot sauce? thanks...I will stick to taking a pill and being knocked out...why burn the heck out of my nose!

1:47AM PST on Nov 7, 2013

Thank you :)

7:09PM PST on Nov 3, 2013

I don't think so!

1:01PM PDT on Nov 2, 2013


3:11AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013


2:58AM PDT on Nov 2, 2013

Thank you :)

10:25AM PDT on Nov 1, 2013

thanks for sharing

7:09AM PDT on Nov 1, 2013

Barbar V: I haven't heard of lidocaine shots up the nose, but I was in the ER twice this past week with a combo cluster headache and torticollis and I met my pain threshold.
The 2nd ER doc gave me 2 injections of lidocaine in the back of the neck to ease the torticollis, and about 6 hours later, when the lidocaine-caused headache wore off, I had some relief for the neck pain, and the cluster headache seems to have gone with the repeated use of pure oxygen for 10 minutes every hour for several hours. It was the worst I ever had, and I've had many in the past 50 years so I have a high tolerance for pain.

The point of the lidocaine injections was to break the pain connection/cycle....and it worked.
I'm also using a TENS unit and it's helping too.

It just seems so foolish to recommend putting pepper oil on tender mucus membranes! There are other ways to dull nerve endings without causing so much collateral damage to tissue.

4:21AM PDT on Nov 1, 2013


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