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Oxygen Therapy Can Help Cluster Headaches

 LONDON – “It feels like a burning hot poker being shoved through your eye while an elephant stands on your temple, while someone is punching you in the back of the head and pulling on your hair,” said Justin Ott, 31, when describing the pain of a cluster headache.

A new 15-minute treatment involving oxygen can significantly reduce the pain.

Ott has suffered from cluster headaches for 10 years, and was motivated to chronicle the debilitating pain — sometimes called a “suicide headache” — in a documentary film.

Doctors estimate only 0.3 percent of the population suffers from cluster headaches, and that men are much more likely to be affected.

“From when you first feel it start, and when it comes to full strength, it’s five minutes, maybe,” said Ott, a writer, producer, director and cinematographer from Weehawken, N.J. “Everybody’s different, but if left untreated it can go on for 30 minutes to 60 minutes.”

Now, new research suggests that sufferers like Ott can take advantage of a relatively simple treatment to help control the excruciating pain of cluster headaches — a treatment called oxygen therapy.

Once a person feels a cluster headache coming on, he or she can often stop the headache in its tracks by breathing with a high-flow oxygen face mask.

Oxygen therapy has been used by some headache specialists for 30 years, but has, until now, been considered experimental because there have been no clinical trials proving its effectiveness. Researchers in the United Kingdom treated 76 adults with either high-flow oxygen or a placebo of high-flow normal air for 15 minutes.

Their study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 78 percent of those on oxygen reported immediate relief compared to only 20 percent receiving the placebo.

Dr. Allan Purdy of the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Center in Canada said that he thought the research was an “excellent study… an evidence-based trial to confirm what we have known and used in practice for years.”

Although the study was one of the first to investigate using oxygen to treat cluster headaches, Ott and other cluster headache survivors have taught each other to use the treatment for years.

“Oxygen really, is the best thing. If I’m at home and I get an attack, that’s my first thing, is the oxygen,” said Ott. “I have tanks all around my house.”