Cluster headaches are described by sufferers as being more excruciating than childbirth or a gunshot wound. But a measure of relief may be in sight for these intensely painful headaches, which are also known as "suicide" headaches. A new study shows that breathing pure oxygen can considerably lessen the agony.
For Petru Russo, the headaches can occur up to 10 times a day. "It's like a knife, somebody's cutting in your brain," he said.
Ruso says he tried all kinds of medication for this severe pain but nothing worked. The only thing that brought relief was breathing pure oxygen. "The pain is gone. The oxygen really changed my life," he explained.
Pure oxygen also did the trick for Valerie Walker. "Oxygen has just made all the difference for me. I do not have the side effects and it has made all the difference for me," she said.
Cluster headaches occur in cycles: sufferers can experience several headaches a day for weeks or even months on end. And cluster headaches are debilitating.
The typical treatment is an injection with the drug sumatriptan. But sumatriptan has side effects and overuse of medication can be hard on the body.
Dr. Peter Goadsby of the University of California and other researchers followed 76 patients in London for five years.
The doctors treated for cluster headaches in each patient using air and oxygen in separate trials.
"Our study showed for the first time a clear difference between oxygen and air in the treatment of acute cluster headache. It was properly powered, randomized and placebo-controlled and really provides evidence for the use of oxygen in cluster headaches," Dr. Goadsby said.
The study found the most effective treatment was high doses of high-flow oxygen.
"Twenty percent of attacks were improved on placebo, which is air, and 78 percent of attacks were improved on oxygen, a clear difference in favor of oxygen," Dr. Goadsby added.
Dr Joel Saper, Founder of the Michigan Headache and Neurological Institute says using oxygen also helps to avoid overuse of other medications. "Patients are so desperate that they will take anything and ending up hurting themselves in the process," Dr. Saper said.
Researchers also found that oxygen could stop the headache pain and eliminate other symptoms associated with cluster headaches, such as red, swollen and watery eyes.