For cluster headaches, oxygen is good medicine, study finds

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‘Cluster headache is probably the most severe pain known to humans. Most female patients describe each attack as worse than childbirth.’

You’d think that such an excruciating condition would require some mighty strong medicine. But a study coming out today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. -- the source of the statement above -- concludes that cluster headaches can be treated by inhaling pure 100% oxygen.

Cluster headaches affect about 0.3% of the general population, according to the study. The National Institutes of Health says the debilitating headaches can strike daily for weeks at a time. Other sources say the bouts can last for months before patients go into remission.

Migraine drugs such as Imitrex (sumatriptan) are typically prescribed to stop the pain, but there are limits on daily usage. A small study of 15 patients has found that inhaling high-flow oxygen for 15 minutes was helpful. A trio of researchers from the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London decided to test the therapy more rigorously.


They found 76 patients who suffered cluster headaches and treated them for four attacks. They were asked to inhale either pure oxygen or normal air (which includes 21% oxygen) through a face mask for 15 minutes. Neither the patients nor the providers knew which odorless, colorless gas was being administered.

But there was a 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.

The study was funded in part by Linde Industrial Gases, a German supplier of industrial and medical gases. One of the study’s authors disclosed that he had served on a Linde advisory board about the use of oxygen to treat cluster headaches.

-- Karen Kaplan

Photo illustration: Excruciating headache? Oxygen may help. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times