Pain sufferer turns to 'shrooms'
August 16, 2006
BY JIM RITTER Health Reporter <!-- Empty line is needed --> <noscript> </noscript>
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Every New Year's Eve and July 4th, Bob Wold brews a tea containing a psychedelic drug from "magic mushrooms."
Wold takes a small dose of the drug psilocybin -- just enough to make sounds more distinct and colors a bit brighter. "I get a couple giggles out of it," he said. "It's like having two or three beers."
But Wold doesn't take "shrooms" for the four-hour high. Rather, he has found that psilocybin is the only drug that prevents one of the most painful conditions known to man, cluster headaches.
Bob Wold, shown by the pond of his Lombard home, suffers from cluster headaches. (RICH HEIN/ SUN-TIMES)
More common in men.
Begin suddenly, with severe pain around one eye. Usually last 45 to 90 minutes.
Typically hit at the same time each day for several weeks until the cluster period is over. Periods usually last 4 to 8 weeks and may occur every few months.
Stress and alcohol can bring on attacks.
Preventive medicines can reduce the number of headaches during cluster periods. Other drugs can shorten headaches and reduce severity. SOURCE: American Academy of Family Physicians
Hundreds of cluster headache sufferers have begun to self-medicate with psilocybin and LSD. And now Harvard Medical School researchers plan to do a carefully controlled study of the drugs.
Wold, a 53-year-old construction contractor, began suffering cluster headaches about 25 years ago. He would get four to six headaches a day, each lasting 45 to 60 minutes. Each cluster period would last three or four months. "The pain is similar to if you hit your thumb with a hammer," he said.
Five or six years ago, Wold read an Internet posting from a man who said his cluster headaches went away after he took LSD for recreational purposes. Word spread, and other patients began taking LSD or psilocybin.
LSD can cause vivid hallucinations and distortions of color, sound, touch, etc. It also can impair judgment, leading to injury. Afterwards, users can suffer acute anxiety or depression. Psilocybin can cause vivid distortions of sights and sounds and emotional disturbances, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Wold had tried about 75 legal drugs, but none worked very long. Figuring he had nothing to lose, he tried psilocybin, and found that two doses a year worked wonders. He orders spores over the Internet and grows mushrooms at his Lombard home.
"For the past five years, I've been pretty much pain-free and headache-free," he said.
Wold has formed a support group, ClusterBusters, to promote research on psychedelics. The group has heard from about 400 patients who have used psilocybin or LSD.
In a preliminary study, researchers from Harvard's McLean Hospital surveyed patients who had used psilocybin or LSD. Twenty-five of 48 psilocybin users and seven of eight LSD users reported the drugs prevented the entire cluster period when headaches normally occurred.
"No other medication, to our knowledge, has been reported to terminate a cluster period," researchers wrote in the June 27 issue of the journal Neurology.
No one knows why psychedelics might work. But Harvard researcher Dr. John Halpern noted that the drugs share a similar structure to medications that have been approved for cluster headaches.
However, researchers acknowledged several limitations to their study, including the possibility that people with good outcomes were more likely to participate than those with poor outcomes.
Halpern and colleagues are planning a follow-up study in which a psychedelic drug would be compared to an inactive placebo.
Psilocybin and LSD are Schedule 1 drugs, meaning they are illegal unless used in research approved by the DEA and Food and Drug Administration.
Halpern warns that psilocybin and LSD "are drugs of abuse and are potentially quite dangerous. . . . My advice then is to not self-medicate but to respect our laws and to help us properly and safely conduct the research needed to find out if these substances work for real."