Oxygen Therapy and Migraines

A migraine is an extremely painful, throbbing headache typically affecting one side of the head.  It is often accompanied with uncomfortable symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, and extremely sensitivity to light and sound.  

More than 37 million people in the United States suffer from migraines. Some past studies roughly calculate that 13% of adults in the US have migraines and 2-3 million are chronic migraines.

Migraines can cause intense pain for hours or even days. To many, the pain is disabling and debilitating.

Thankfully there are several treatments to relieve the painful migraine. From prescription and over-the-counter options to natural remedies.  Among these treatments is oxygen therapy.

The first mention of oxygen therapy in medical literature was in 1939, when several physicians in Rochester, MN reported that they had successfully treated severe migraine attacks solely by having the patient breathe in pure oxygen.  In more recent medical trials and studies, the information stands the same.

The majority (75%!) of patients that were treated with 100% oxygen were completely or almost completely pain free within 15 minutes. It was found, however not considered statistically significant, that patients that were younger than 50 years old had a better response to oxygen therapy than those older than 50.

Nowadays, it quite common for those suffering from migraines in emergency rooms or urgent care facilities to be treated with oxygen prior to administering medication. And a great perk: virtually zero side effects!

The exact details, the whys and the reasonings in which oxygen therapy reduces migraines is not exactly unknown.

However, according to the National Headache Foundation, an increased blood flow in the brain in cluster and migraine headaches, although both headaches do not have the same degree of increased flow. It has been shown that oxygen causes a marked decrease in cerebral blood flow that is coincident with the reduced degree of pain in cluster headache. 

Some doctors believe that brain cells lack oxygen after the aura phase (the neurological symptoms; dizziness, seeing spots, darkness, etc.) of a migraine, which is why oxygen therapy has been so successful in many cases.

In some studies, oxygen therapy that was administered during the aura phase, before the migraine headache, was most successful.

This is an important thing to note. Timing is everything. Treating early as well as administering the correct dosage. Delivering oxygen during the aura phase seems to lower blood flow to the brain, thus the headache phase doesnt come to pass.

Treatment is important prior to the headache phase so the headache cannot escalate.

There are two forms of oxygen therapy.

The first is called normobaric (NBOT) where a portable oxygen concentrator delivers oxygen with a mask or nasal cannula.

The second is called hyperbaric (HBOT).

This treatment uses an enclosed chamber where 100 percent oxygen flows (no mask/cannula is used).  Normobaric treatment is much more effective in treating migraine and cluster headaches.

However, studies show that normobaric treatment is relieving to patients, just not as effectively.