Biting into the “hottest pepper in the world” sounds painful enough. But for one 34-year-old man, the daring feat resulted in excruciating headaches, known as “thunderclap” headaches, according to a new report of his case.
Shortly after, he began having dry heaves and experiencing thunderclap headaches — brief and intensely excruciating pain up the back of his neck and head. They typically strike out of the blue, peak within 60 seconds, and nausea and vomiting can occur along with them, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The man headed to the emergency room at Bassett Medical Center in Cooperstown, N.Y., for medical care. His doctors there reported the incident in this week’s BMJ Case Reports, and wrote that neurological tests came up clear, but that scans of the patient’s head and neck showed a condition called reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS).
RCVS is a rare condition that occurs when the vessels that supply blood to the brain suddenly constrict or tighten, Noah Rosen, M.D., Director of Northwell Health’s Headache Center in Manhasset, N.Y., told MensHealth.com. The condition can cause intense headaches.
“We see the type of RCVS they described linked to a number of other things, often times with prescribed medications, some antidepressants, and using cannibis increases the risk of it. It’s a well-described phenomenon,” says Rosen. RCVS is also linked with migraine and anti-Parkinson’s medications, and the use of cocaine and ecstasy.
No cases have previous been reported linking RCVS to ingesting peppers or cayenne, but eating hot peppers has been associated with other health issues, such as heart attacks, the authors said.
Rosen, who was not an author of the case report, offered a couple of theories on why the peppers might have caused thunderclap headaches. Certain compounds in capsaicin — the extract from the hot chili pepper — “elevate the sympathetic nervous system” and could have led to constriction of the vessels, he said. The man could also have been dehydrated, if he experienced vomiting.
And for the record, the Carolina Reaper has a so-called heat index of about 1.5 million Scoville units, according to Guinness World Records. To give you a sense of what that means, a jalapeño’s heat clocks in at about 5,000 Scoville units.
Whether it’s hot peppers, hot dogs, or pie, eating contests are never a good idea, Rosen adds. “I think there’s a danger when food becomes a challenge. Other than thunderclap headaches, there are probably several good reasons why you shouldn’t eat the world’s hottest pepper, including nausea, vomiting, and GI distress,” he says.
The case study patient’s symptoms eventually healed with time and supportive care, the authors reported, and a scan five weeks later showed the problem had resolved.
Rosen warns, that if you experience thunderclap headaches, don’t ignore them. They can also be a sign of a blood clot in the brain, infection, a stroke, or other serious health conditions.