Painful thunderclap headaches are caused by the constriction of arteries. Extreme spiciness can be to blame. 

By Ananda Eidelstein
April 11, 2018
Jay's photo/Getty Images

If you’re anything like us, you look for the chili pepper illustration on menus and don’t hesitate to ask how spicy a dish might be, sticking to the mild side of things. But if you love a serious kick, and you get a thrill from a lip-numbing experience: The spicier the better you might think. Well, not always. More than just sweating, clearing up your sinus, and tearing up a bit, immense spiciness can have a real effect on your body, both at the moment of consumption and for days after.

Although we have seen that eating spicy foods on a daily basis can lower your mortality rate, reaching for off-the-charts spiciness can do more harm than good. Case in point: A man developed painful episodic headaches excruciating enough to drive him to the emergency room after eating the world’s spiciest pepper, a “California Reaper”. The physical reactions began promptly after consuming the pepper at a hot chili pepper eating contest. First with dry heaves, then neck pain, followed by excruciating headaches lasting days after consumption.  

Following numerous negative tests for neurological conditions, a CT scan showed some arteries in his brain had constricted. This resulted in a reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS) diagnosis which leads to these so-called Thunderclap headaches, symptoms of which include sudden, onset headaches that are blindingly painful and come and go like, well, a thunderclap. The authors of the case study consider this to be the first case associated with chili peppers, although there has been a link between cayenne pepper and sudden constriction of the coronary artery.

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Thankfully, the symptoms cleared up on their own and five weeks later a CT scan showed all was back to normal. But, in our opinion, thunderclap headaches just don’t sound worth the thrill of eating the spiciest foods. Better to go for foods with just the right kick, like this Spicy Tofu With Vegetables and Coconut Rice.