Oxygen Therapy for Headache Pain:
Safe and Natural Solution for Stubborn, Painful, Chronic Headaches
Michael Bennett, MB, BS, MD (University of New South Wales)
Alexander Mauskop (State University of New York in Brooklyn)
Special from Bottom Line’s Daily Health News (December 11, 2008)
Of the nearly one million Americans who suffer from cluster headaches, relief may be just a breath… of pure oxygen… away. Cluster headaches are acutely painful headaches that come in waves… with several short headaches a day over a period of weeks or months. It’s not known what causes them nor what might cure them… but a recent review of research suggests that oxygen therapy, in particular what’s known as “normobaric” (normal pressure) oxygen therapy (NBOT), can effectively relieve the pain. This is good news for sufferers of cluster headaches, as NBOT is an easy and natural alternative — and, perhaps most importantly, it works really fast.
The lead author of the meta-analysis, Michael Bennett, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, explored the effectiveness of two kinds of oxygen therapy for prevention and treatment of headaches — NBOT, which involves breathing 100% oxygen from a portable oxygen tank with a mask… and hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), which involves breathing oxygen at higher than normal atmospheric pressure in a sealed chamber. Dr. Bennett reviewed nine small clinical trials involving 201 participants, noting that 76% of patients experienced relief when treated with NBOT for their cluster headaches and not much from HBOT. He also found evidence, though nowhere near as strong or compelling, that HBOT relieves migraine headaches. While NBOT is “cheap and easy to apply” as a therapy for cluster headache patients, Dr. Bennett expressed caution about the use of HBOT for migraines, given its “high cost, poor availability and inconvenience,” saying more research needs to be done. The study was published July 16, 2008, in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
Alexander Mauskop, MD, a board-certified neurologist and director of the New York Headache Center, who uses oxygen therapy in his practice, explained why this treatment is helpful to people who suffer from these very particular headaches. (Note: Oxygen therapy is not currently recommended for relief from any other kind of headache and should never be attempted on your own.)
According to Dr. Mauskop, up to 70% of cluster headache patients can attain relief within five to 10 minutes of breathing in 100% oxygen. For oxygen therapy to work, the oxygen must be inhaled through a mask at high flow (between 8 to 10 liters per minute). It is believed that oxygen helps by offsetting metabolic changes that cause pain and vasospasms due to oxygen depletion.
Effective as it is for cluster headaches, Dr. Mauskop notes that this therapy probably will not be helpful in alleviating any other kind of headache pain. Visit a neurologist for a headache evaluation if you think you may have cluster headaches and might benefit from NBOT. And by the way, it should be noted that NBOT is distinct from other oxygen therapies that are available in spas and at trendy oxygen bars. In those, the concentration of oxygen is likely to be much lower than 100% — in fact, those “oxygen treatments” are typically just a few percent points more than the usual 21% we breathe in the air.
Michael Bennett, MB, BS, MD, is an associate professor in the faculty of Medicine, University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Dr. Bennett is an experienced clinician and researcher in both Anesthesia and Diving/Hyperbaric Medicine.
Alexander Mauskop, MD, is the director and founder of the New York Headache Center. He is a board-certified neurologist and has published numerous articles in scientific journals. Dr. Mauskop is author of The Headache Alternative: A Neurologist’s Guide to Drug-Free Relief (Dell) and What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Migraines (Warner).