The official name is cluster headaches, but some people call them “suicide headaches.” That’s because they can cause such excruciating pain that victims are desperate for relief.
A headache specialist once told us that he had a patient who banged his head on an old-fashioned iron radiator to try to ease the agony. Another patient developed a severe abrasion on his face from repeatedly rubbing it on a rug.
Cluster headaches are far more likely to affect men than women. The pain is usually on one side of the head near an eye and normally lasts one to three hours. The most diabolical part of these headaches is that they often recur in cycles (clusters) that can last for weeks or even months.
We heard from one victim about a novel remedy that worked well for him: “I used to get cluster headaches on a regular basis for 10 years. The acute throbbing hot needle-like pain was behind one or both eyes, with the intensity of half a dozen migraines all at the same time. They lasted around 2.5 hours and nothing stopped them except codeine pills, which put me to sleep. A few hours after waking another headache would begin.
“I was 27 years old when I went to the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, MN. I was tested for all possible causes and declared completely healthy. The doctor said there was no cure, but he was an Australian. He’d heard of a salesman in his country who coped with cluster headaches by carrying an oxygen cylinder in his station wagon. When a headache hit, the man breathed some oxygen for a short while. The Mayo Clinic doctor wrote me a prescription so I could try oxygen for my next headache.
“At 11 that evening, I got hit again and had help getting to the local hospital. The nurses came running with a wheelchair as we came through the door. When I told them my story, they weren’t comfortable with my prescription for oxygen and called up the doctor in Rochester to get the go-ahead. After just two minutes of oxygen, I no longer had any throbbing or head pain at all! I got up and we went home.
“The next day I bought a small cylinder of oxygen that I could take to work. When I felt the headache coming on, I would take a few minutes off to breathe oxygen. This would stop the headache before it got started, and eventually they quit altogether. It’s been 42 years since I had a heavy headache. I wish everyone who suffers from this condition would be told about oxygen.”
Renowned headache specialist Joel Saper, MD, responded to this report: “From 7 to 15 liters of oxygen breathed through a mask for a few minutes can terminate such an attack, although this effect does not prevent subsequent attacks during the day, which can be multiple. In those cluster headache patients in whom oxygen appears effective, it may be effective each and every time or only sometimes. In some patients it doesn’t help at all.
“It is not known with certainty how oxygen works for headache. Most authorities credit Dr. Lee Kudrow as having first reported the effect of oxygen on cluster headaches. Readers must be warned that oxygen is quite combustible and should never be used or maintained around smokers, flammable appliances, or in any other situation that might ignite the oxygen.”

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  1. Tina
    Reply

    My husband suffers from cluster headaches and the oxygen really does help if you can get a prescription for it. But what he just happened to try that really helps is at the onset of the headache, jump in the shower and let the hot water run on the area that the headache is starting for about ten minutes. He tried this and it went away. Also, drinking a glass of water every half hour or so seems to help decrease the amount of times the headaches occur and also stops them totally for a few days or sometimes breaks the cycle so drink as much water as you can. Hope it helps.

  2. Tanveer
    Reply

    Just wanted to say thanks for the information. I am desperate to help my daughter. By the way, oxygen is not combustible. Meaning you cant set it on fire. However, stuff needs oxygen to burn … so if you have a fire and direct oxygen at it, it will burn faster. Chemical engineer here. Just sharing what I know … humbly. Again, thanks.

  3. Michele
    Reply

    I suffered w/cluster headaches for a total of about 7 yrs. At first, I’d only get them in September. Weird, right? I told my GP about it and told him the symptoms of the hot poker stabbing at my eyeball and the pain rushing through the right side of my head. UGH! He gave me Midrin at first, the next year he gave me Imitrex. Two years ago I started getting them every single night. I’d wake up, rush to the freezer for an ice pack, grabbed an Imitrex and wait for the pain to subside before finally being able to go back to sleep. Sometimes they’d last 5 minutes, other times they’d last 4 hours.
    I started taking Tylenol 4s and they worked. I thought it might be the Codine (sp) but I didn’t have many of those. Eventually, it got to the point where I would take an Imitrex before bed every single night JUST so I’d be able to sleep right through. Well, my insurance only covers 9 pills a month so I’d cut them in thirds, take 1/3 w/FIVE Advil just so I could spread the Imitrex throughout the month. I BEGGED my insurance to raise my script to 15/month and they did. Phew! CVS eventually told me the dangers of taking so many Imitrex so I figured I needed to take a different approach.
    I went to a different GP and he sent me to a neurologist. I explained to the neurologist what was going on and he sent me for an MRI. In the middle of the MRI I got a migraine and I was so happy! I figured YAY…we’ll FINALLY know what is going on!! Well, you guessed it… the MRI showed absolutely NOTHING (except my brain, of course) ;) I went back to the neurologist and told him that the Tylenol 4s worked great. He gave me a look like all I was there for were drugs and really made me feel like sh*t. He sent me on my not-so-merry way and did absolutely nothing for me.
    I finally went to the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, after the first entire YEAR of nightly clusters. I told Dr. Nissan my symptoms and he said, “I know exactly what that is.” So, after diagnosing me with clusters, he said the most common cause is my smoking. Well, one would THINK that if smoking is the cause of these ‘suicide headaches’ one would QUIT smoking…well, not me! I know…on the count of three let’s say it together…one…two…three…YOU’RE AN IDIOT!
    He prescribed the oxygen and it works WONDERS! I’m on my third year of nightly migraines, which have turned into every night PLUS several during the day throughout the week. And do I quit smoking? NOPE! I workout everyday and 3x a week I have an extreme cardio workout. About 1/2 hour after my workouts BAM…migraine. So, I drag an oxygen tank to work with me everyday just to be on the safe side.
    Well, Dr. Nissan has since left the Diamond Headache Clinic and I was given another doc. SHE prescribed botox and the botox was GREAT! I didn’t have a migraine for 2.5 months AND my insurance covered it! Well, I haven’t gone back to Diamond for more botox treatments because I’m fearing it would be a waste of time and my insurance wouldn’t cover it anymore. Eventually, I’ll try again.
    Whoever said this above is RIGHT…ALL doctors should know the signs of the most self-inflicted deadliest migraine there is. I told my original GP what the diagnosis is and he was like, “oh yeah…clusters!” Well, too little too late, doc.

  4. frannie
    Reply

    I have been a cluster headache sufferer for over thirty years I cannot use verapamil because I have gastritise I did use ergomar but they took it off the market. I must say the ergomar worked fine the pain went away but now the cluster headaches are back and I need something. I’ll try the oxygen but where do I get it? and can I afford it? Does any one in the pharmacy companies care that we are suffering we need help now please

  5. Jeremy
    Reply

    I have cluster headaches (diagnosed by a neurologist) and have found no cure for my headaches. Oxygen didn’t help, I tried it several times. Any thing that I have found that did help only seemed to end my headache bout, but then sooner or later the next bout would come along and it didn’t work anymore. Things that I tried are Ma Huang, Feverfew, Vitamin b6 (riboflavin), Butterbur, Magnesium / Calcium (many different types, Liquid trace minerals, Mate’, and a few others.
    I definitely get suicidal but my religion won’t let me go there. But I have no problem putting myself in dangerous situations during my headache bout just to see if maybe. But I really don’t want to go there I really just want my headaches to go away. I have a lot going for me, I am a member of a spiritual community that follows the bible and I am very fascinated with. I have a wife and two boys…….
    But why why…………..why these headaches???????????????????????????????????????

  6. BC
    Reply

    My girlfriend has been getting these for 4 yrs. We have only been together. For a few months and last night was the 1st time she had one since we started dating. It broke my heart to see her in such pain. She said she has been to several doctors but none have told her of any cures outside of Steroids or Cortisone shots.
    I made a promise to her that I was going to do all I can to help her with this. Where can I get Oxygen? Are there any other known cures? Please help with any suggestions. I just want her pain to go away.

  7. GS
    Reply

    I’ve had cluster headaches for decades, and the oxygen therapy has not worked for me. Nothing I tried worked for me, but I always had hope that something would. I had one several months ago, and tried something I read on the Internet (I wish I could remember where I’d seen it, but I can’t.) I normally wouldn’t just try something off the Internet, but when these things hit, I’d pretty much try something written in freaking Sanskrit if it would help. I’ve had the beginnings of a cluster headache 4 times since, and this has worked every time so far.
    I have a large glass pitcher with a rounded rim. I fill it about half full with boiling water, and throw in a couple of teabags. Then I place my face down on the rim of the pitcher (which is why it’s important not to have a sharp rim) and breathe. DON’T seal your face against it. When you breathe in, the air gets sucked in from the sides of your face and feels cool. When you breathe out, it blows back up against your face and feels warm/hot. I do this 5 or six breaths, then stop, lean back up and breathe normally. I repeat this a few times, and my cluster headache turns into a kind of minor dull-thumping headache that I can pretty much ignore. Takes about 10 minutes, whereas my cluster headaches used to last for about 2 hours.

  8. dee
    Reply

    Botox injections in my forehead, scalp and neck is the only thing that has worked for me ($1000 for 3 months relief). I was having 27 headaches a month and now have maybe 2. It is considered experimental and not covered by insurance, although my bi-monthly trips to the ER at $800 a pop were!

  9. Steve P.
    Reply

    I take 120 mg Verapamil TID for prevention of the headaches. I’ve been taking it for more than 10 years. Recently I tried to take a calcium supplement. It immediately kicked in a cluster.
    Has anyone else experienced this? I think the Verapamil, a calcium channel blocker, could be countered by the calcium.

  10. R. Gott
    Reply

    Read your article on cluster headaches in the Hartford (CT) Courant, Oct 8
    I have been a sufferer in cycles: every 3-5 years since the early 90’s. Each cycle lasting 4-6 weeks with multiple headaches daily.
    The last neurologist I visited seem to have found my solution:Prednisone, Verapamil (80mg three times a day). He also gave me Zomig (5mg) as an emergency measure.
    I experienced a headache after taking the Verapamil (due to eating an excessive amount of chocolate). I knew alcohol triggered a cluster headache, but the chocolate was a surprise. I took one Zomig tablet without relief. I took a second one 45 minutes later and the headache was gone in 7 minutes. The doctor stated that 10mg would have been the proper dosage for me.
    I had read about the oxygen treatment, but the above worked very well for me.

  11. Teresa P
    Reply

    I have been on oxygen for my morbid migraines for 2 years now. More often than not it will work. I can’t describe what a cluster feels like, but I can try to explain my pain-when I get the morbid migraines I feel like a burst of hearts are pounding full throttle in my head and I can count the beats without touching any part of my body.
    They beat rapidly in my brain and I feel at any moment my brain will explode and rip through my flesh and scalp! I’ve had 2 natural child births and would much rather go through that instead of this *feeling* of intense pending death. Yes folks, *this* is my suicidal migraine. My neurologist put me on 7-8 liters for 10-15 minutes. I think it’s one of the best things we’ve ever tried. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t but it’s worth every cent I pay for it monthly.

  12. ann
    Reply

    did you know Verapamil is really bad for your gums?
    PEOPLE’S PHARMACY RESPONSE: IT CAN INDEED TRIGGER GUM OVERGROWTH: EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF PHARMACOLOGY, MARCH 31, 2008

  13. Charles
    Reply

    I suffered from Cluster headaches for 14 years. I had been diagnosed as “Histamine” headaches, Psychosomatic, allergic to Chocolate, and several others. I was a smoker (2 packs a day, Unfiltered Camel) and decided to quit smoking. The result is that my headaches stopped after a week. If I get in a closed room with a smoker or two, my headache will return. I am convinced that the Cluster headache is caused by something a person is allergic to.
    I actually put a pistol to my head to kill myself because of the pain but with a wife & 3 children to support I could not do it. It was the mid 50’s & early 60’s and the docs gave me Demerol to use at home so I became dependent on Demerol which I was able to finally leave alone and flushed 6 2cc Vials down the toilet. All the Damn docs wanted to do was make me a licensed addict.
    I just thank God that I now have relief and don’t suffer anymore. I praise him for this blessing. I quit smoking because I committed my life to the Lord Jesus and got this wonderful blessing in return!!

  14. DI - UK
    Reply

    If I can add to this thread; I have suffered from Episodic Cluster Headaches for some 30 years. The last three bouts (normally 18 months apart) of which I have treated with 100% O2 at 15 litres per minute with a non re-breathing mask. If caught early in the attack the pain will ease almost immediately and go completely within 10-15 minutes.
    I have a cylinder at my bedside which when the bout is at its peak I will use pretty much subconsciously at hourly intervals throughout the night and I have a portable cylinder which stays with me during the day, although rarely used as mine are typically late evening/night bouts.
    I have tried most things and this for me is the most effective once you have resolved the logistic issues of cylinders. The true benefit is that there are no restrictions on how often you can take O2 whereas the stronger medications (sumatriptan injections) are normally limited to 2 in 24 hours which is no use whatsoever at the peak of a “cluster” when I get perhaps 10 attacks a day.
    Finally, not that it should be important but O2 is provided without charge in the UK and is delivered to your home. A fantastic service from the National Health Service. It’s not all bad here:)

  15. Shari
    Reply

    I have been using oxygen for cluster headaches for several years now. Most times it works for me if I can use it as soon as the headache starts. It usually only takes about 5 minutes at a flow of 7-8 liters. I am lucky because my insurance company payes for it. I had to have a prescription for the medical supply company I use but my insurance pays to rent the regulator and for the oxygen.

  16. JI
    Reply

    I read on Dr. Gott’s column that “steaming” helps headaches, too. Putting a towel over your head and breathing steaming water in a pan below your face, can also help (perhaps for milder headaches).

  17. Steve P.
    Reply

    I have suffered with “The Monster” for more than 20 years. It took 5 years and trips to 5 different teaching hospitals to get a good diagnosis. Why the hell don’t they teach these Docs about the “worst of the worst”.
    They call it the suicide headache because there are so many documented cases where the hopelessness took over. Believe me these are the most excruciating pains you can get. It’s like a red hot poker in your eye socket. For most of the years, I would inject with Imitrex sub-cute and the pain would leave. However, Imitrex is one of those drugs you would rather not take unless there is no other choice.
    And then 1 day it caught up with me. I had had 7 attacks in 1 day and I called up my Docs and told them that unless they could fix me today, today would be my last. I sent the same message to the Headache Clinic in Jefferson Hospital Phila. They apparently took me seriously. The next day I had an appointment with Dr. Silberstein, apparently the chief headache Guru in the US.
    I was dx’d with Cluster and prescribed a large dose of Verapamil for prevention, and Oxygen with a re-breather mask at 12L/min.
    Amazingly, the first time I used the oxygen the headache was gone in several minutes. It was the 1st real relief I had gotten in years. That was 10 years ago. What I almost killed myself over has now become nothing more than a nuisance that occasionally wakes me up at night with a bad pain.
    I am never without my Oxygen. I keep a portable tank with me wherever I go.
    Insurance doesn’t cover it, but I bought my own regulator and I rent a D tank of oxygen for about $10.00. With the re-breather, it lasts for about 20 treatments.
    Please tell your doctor friends to read up on this malady. The symptoms are so unique it can’t be mistaken for anything else. In my case they, at different times, called it Trigenimal neuralgia, blamed it on my MS, sinus condition, and the best of all PSYCHOSOMATIC.
    Educate the medical profession so more people don’t end up suicides.

  18. Ddee
    Reply

    I have these, wishing for death head aches! My vision gets affected and my balance is disrupted. My ear feels as if someone has stuck a knife deep down in it and popped it. I do feel as if I’m going blind by them. Though I have wished to be deaf at times when even the smallest sound was too intense. I have tried Maxalt MLT 10 MG Tablet, which has saved my life.
    I still get headaches but the medicine eases them to where I can function. With the cost of them at nearly $40.00 a tablet and the rise and decline of insurance cost I find myself waiting to see which headache to use them for. What is the cost of oxygen and do insurance companies cover this treatment for the headaches?

  19. Laura
    Reply

    Is there any record of oxygen being a successful treatment of traditional migraine?
    PEOPLE’S PHARMACY RESPONSE: WE HAVE HEARD ONLY OF IT BEING USED AGAINST CLUSTER HEADACHES.

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