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Effective Treatment for Cluster Headaches: Using Oxygen Therapy

Posted Dec 20 2009 12:00am
In the December issue of the Journal of Medical Association- a new study shows that using oxygen therapy for patients who suffer from cluster headaches may be beneficial. Before we get into the study, let me explain a little bit about Cluster Headaches.

What Are Cluster Headaches? Cluster headaches predominately affect men. Often times, a cluster headache will appear on one side of the head. A patient may describe the pain as a burning, sharp and “steady” pain. The headaches occur repeatedly. Areas that are affected often include in and around the eye, one side of the face, one side of the neck, temples, head and the nose on the one side.

Cluster headache What are the Symptoms Associated with a Cluster Headache?
  • *Swelling under or around they eye (may affect both eyes)
  • *Excessive tearing
  • *Redness in the eye
  • *Rhinorrhea (runny nose) or one-sided stuffy nose (same side as the head pain)
  • *Red, flushed face
  • *Reduced Pupil Size and drooping eyelid on the side affected


The pain from a cluster headache swiftly intensifies within 5 to 10 minutes to a peak that typically persists for 30 minutes to 2 hours. Affected persons usually do not lie down during the attack because it usually worsens the pain.

What are the triggers that cause a cluster headache? Alcohol, stress, glare, eating particular foods. There is usually no family history of cluster headaches.

The JAMA Study This purpose of this recent study was to find out if high-flow inhaled oxygen was better than a placebo in the acute treatment of a cluster headache.

109 patients ages 18-70 who suffered with cluster headaches were recruited for the study. 57 patients suffered with episodic cluster headaches and 19 had chronic cluster headaches.

The patients were treated for 4 cluster headache attacks with high-flow Pure 100% oxygen or a placebo (normal air which contains 21% air). They inhaled this through a face mask for 15 minutes. Neither the patients nor the providers knew which odorless, colorless gas was being administered.

The researchers found a big difference. When asked to rate their pain relief, 78% of patients said they felt fine within 15 minutes of breathing high-flow pure oxygen. By contrast, only 20% of patients had the same response after being treated with high-flow regular air. Oxygen continued to outperform air at 30 and 60 minutes after the onset of the attack, according to the study. The researchers didn’t report any serious adverse effects.

“To our knowledge, this is the first adequately powered trial of high-flow oxygen compared with placebo, and it confirms clinical experience and current guidelines that inhaled oxygen can be used as an acute attack therapy for episodic and chronic cluster headache ," the authors wrote.

At the Neck pain support blog, I always try to provide my readers with treatment options that are non surgical in nature and ones that do not require taking medication. Many patients who suffer from cluster headaches do take drugs such as corticosteroids (for example, prednisone). Other have regular injections (for example, Imitrex) to deal with the symptoms. This study shows that Inhalation of 100 percent oxygen does provide relief for some cluster headache sufferers.

Source: High-Flow Oxygen for Treatment of Cluster Headache , Anna S. Cohen, PhD, MRCP; Brian Burns, MD, MRCP; Peter J. Goadsby, MD, PhD, DSc, FRACP, FRCP JAMA. 2009;302(22):2451-2457.
Picture Source: US National Library of Medicine

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