Ten days ago an old pal came to visit me and wouldn’t go away. My cluster headaches. I hadn’t had one for a year and a half but I recognised the knock-knock-knocking on the inside of my temple and all around my right eye.
Only one in a thousand people get them, these skull-destroyers. They’re nicknamed “suicide headaches” because the pain can be so unbearable that some sufferers have taken their own lives.
Most doctors have had at least one patient who’s done that rather than endure the condition any longer.
The first time it happened to me I was 30 years old. The pain was sudden and shocking. I had to stop driving the car. I broke out in cold sweats, my legs started shaking and my right eyelid drooped then started to make tears that ran down my cheek.
After 40 minutes, it stopped abruptly, like some torturer had flicked an electric current off and I just wanted to crawl into the back seat of the car and go to sleep. There’s something shameful about a headache that is so disabling.
Folk will offer you a couple of Nurofen and wonder why you wave it away. Normal “express” painkillers don’t work. Worse still, as I quickly found out, they have a wee shot of caffeine in them. Caffeine, like alcohol, is a trigger for cluster headaches. Even the little dose of caffeine in a soft drink like Coke or Irn-Bru can be enough to launch an attack.
A lot of employers are sympathetic now that more is known about cluster headaches and their big sister, the migraine. Plenty more are sceptical and think you must be skiving.
At its worst, on a scale of one to ten, a cluster headache is an eleven. It feels like there’s a crazy wee guy with a hammer-action drill trying to bore a hole behind your eye or your temple. One headache can last up to three hours. But once the cycle starts, each headache leaves behind the seed of the next one, like the ghost of a bruise where somebody has punched you hard.
Twenty years ago it took the NHS an average of 25 years to give you a diagnosis.
Now it’s down to about six years. I’m lucky, I have “episodic” cluster headaches.
That means they can vanish off my radar for up to a year. It’s the chronic sufferers who get really depressed. They know they’re stuck with this for life and there’s no known cause or complete cure.
After trying various medications known as “triptans”, one doctor to whom I’ll be forever grateful, suggested trying breathable oxygen. I got a permanent prescription for it and the first time I used it, my cluster headaches stopped immediately and didn’t come back for a year. It’s not a miracle cure but it is a simple and effective treatment and it’s available on the NHS if you ask your GP.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem to work for migraines.
If your headaches are confined to one side of your head and come in multiple attacks, up to eight times a day, sometimes shaking you wide awake in the middle of the night, then you are one of the unlucky ones.
Find out all you can from OUCH, the aptly-named Organisation for the Understanding of Cluster Headaches. And thank your lucky stars you don’t live in the States where – unless you have Obamacare – you’ll need to dig out the credit card every time you want a sook of oxygen.
If you think you might be an undiagnosed cluster headache sufferer, contact OUCH at ouchuk.org or call their helpline on 01646 651 979.
Winner of Olympic heroic failure medal
Watching the Olympics the other night it struck me that I was probably more fascinated by the failures than the successes.
When the cyclists were taking downhill bends at what looked like 50mph and the commentators were predicting disaster, it was almost as if they knew what was coming next.
With only 10km to ride and looking favourites for gold and silver, the two front guys were on the deck in the blink of an eye, writhing in pain, their hopes in tatters.
The Polish chap in bronze position suddenly found himself contemplating the empty road ahead instead of his fellow competitor’s skinny backside.
Off he pedalled, scarcely believing his luck, glancing round every few seconds to check he was still out on his own. Then suddenly he wasn’t. He was running on vapour as not one sprint finisher but two zipped past him, leaving him back where he’d been, in third place.
In the swimming it was Hannah Miley rather than Adam Peaty who grabbed my attention. She swam a brave race and was an unmeasurable sliver of a body hair away from a medal.
Fighting for victory, on her face were two opposing emotions – her happiness at having given her best against the best and her disappointment at having come so close to getting that shiny, bronze disc hung around her neck.
The antidote to all this serious stuff is on YouTube in the shape of French comedian Remi Gaillard’s Homemade Olympics.
Remi is a fast runner. He has to be because the pranks he plays on his unsuspecting comedy victims are the kind that could get you a kicking.
In this little edit of unsporting comedy capers, Remi races cars round a roundabout, jumps into a construction worker’s cement pile, shot-putts a melon he steals from a fruit stall (getting a fruit-box broken over his head for his trouble) then grabs an angler’s rod and hurls it like a javelin into the lake.
Words don’t do it justice. You have to watch it.