Some scientists believe that LSD and psilocybin could treat everything from cluster headaches to fibromyalgia.
By Mattha Busby
For more than 15 years, Ainslie Course suffered from one of the most intense pains known to humans: cluster headaches. Sometimes nicknamed “suicide headaches”, her main symptom was an excruciating pain that suddenly surrounded one eye in debilitating bouts of attacks. These cycles could last for months, and acute sufferers are known to be statistically more likely to take their own lives. But none of the traditional treatment options worked for Course. Instead, psychedelics were her saviour.
“My experiences with psilocybin therapy were life-saving,” says 55-year-old Course, now the vice-president of a non-profit organisation called Clusterbusters. “Not only did psilocybin help to control the acute nature of the attacks, but it greatly lengthened remission times between cycles.” On pharmaceutical medicines, she would rarely be migraine free for a few months. “But with psilocybin, my remission periods are up to two years.”
In fact, it increasingly seems that pain – one of the most universal experiences in the human condition – is now the next frontier for psychedelics after mental health. And the use of psilocybin to ease cluster headaches is not the only line of investigation. LSD is now being investigated by startups and universities around the world for its treatment of chronic pain and fibromyalgia (a debilitating condition which causes, among many other symptoms, excruciating stiffness).
High quality evidence remains scarce, but dozens of emerging trials go some way towards validating widespread anecdotal reports that psychedelics can play this role. “There’s a case for cautious optimism and continuing to push the cause,” says James Close, a doctoral student at the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London and pain management therapist at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.