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How to Treat Suicide Headaches with Oxygen

Cluster headaches, also known as suicide headaches, can be very difficult to treat. Most respond well to high-flow oxygen through a mask.

Treating headaches can be quite a pain. Severe migraines may respond to “triptan” medications. Cluster headaches don’t always react to these drugs. So how do you treat suicide headaches, as sufferers sometimes call them?

Oxygen for Cluster Headaches:

Q. I am 30 years old and have suffered for nine years with cluster headaches. I would get them every day for a month straight. I’ve tried prescription pills but they never worked. I just had to deal with the pain.

About a week ago, my doctor told me to try oxygen. It has worked miracles for me. The pain is gone within minutes instead of the usual hour and a half.

If people suffer from cluster headaches, I really hope they ask the doctor about oxygen. Nobody should have to deal with that kind of pain.

How Do You Treat Suicide Headaches?

A. Doctors and patients sometimes refer to cluster headaches as “suicide headaches.” That’s because the pain can be so intense that some patients may contemplate suicide if they cannot get it under control.

The pain is often centered around the eye on one side of the head. Other symptoms can include a runny nose, tearing or redness in the affected eye and a droopy eyelid.

Oxygen as a Headache Treatment:

In its guidelines, the American Headache Society classifies oxygen as a first choice for treating cluster headaches. Other options include sumatriptan injections, zolmitriptan nasal spray or melatonin (Headache, July/Aug., 2016; Sept. 2016).

In one randomized controlled trial, high-flow oxygen (10 to 15 liters/minute) self-administered through a face mask was effective in reducing the pain of migraine headaches (Cephalalgia, online May 20, 2016). Oxygen relieved pain in 46 percent of moderately severe attacks compared to 7 percent for medical air. Cluster headaches respond to a similar treatment of 100% oxygen (12 L/min) delivered through a face mask for 15 minutes right at the start of a headache (JAMA, Dec. 9, 2009).

Other Headache Treatments:

You will find more details on these and other ways to treat head pain in our Guide to Headaches and Migraines. Magnesium, Coenzyme Q10 and vitamin B2 may also be helpful against migraines. We interviewed Dr. Jennifer Kriegler of the Cleveland Clinic about headache treatments; you may wish to listen to the hour-long discussion in Show 1055.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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