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Suicide Headaches Stifled by Oxygen

Breathing high-flow oxygen can stop suicide headaches more quickly than medicine. There are even studies to support this treatment.

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. They can be very hard to treat.

What Can Be Done for Suicide Headaches?

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.

Oxygen to Soothe Suicide Headaches:

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.”

Oxygen Stops the Pain:

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.”

What Does the Research Say?

A placebo-controlled study published in JAMA shows that this treatment works surprisingly well (Cohen, Burns & Goadsby, JAMA Dec. 9, 2009). Three quarters of the patients who breathed high-flow oxygen for fifteen minutes at the first sign of an attack got dramatic relief. That compares to one-fifth of those breathing plain air as a placebo who reported benefit. The investigators concluded that oxygen represents a viable alternative to medications for the treatment of cluster headaches.

Recently, the International Headache Society did a survey to find out about oxygen use for cluster headaches around the world (Evers & Rapoport, Cephalalgia, April 2017). Oxygen is covered by reimbursement in just half the countries surveyed. The investigators urged their colleagues to pressure public health authorities so that people who need oxygen for suicide headaches can get it.

In the US, patients tell us that Medicare does not cover oxygen for these excruciating headaches.

Revised 7/3/2017

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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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