Breathing Exercises for Cluster Headaches

There's a good reason you might ask someone to take a deep breath when they seem anxious or overwhelmed. Breathing exercises have real effects on your body that help keep you calm and control your stress. And for people who get tension headaches or migraine, they can be a key part of treatment.

But are they any match for the intense pain of a cluster headache? While there haven't been studies to show it, some doctors think they're worth trying. After all, there's no harm, and it won't cost you a dime. All you need is a few minutes and attention to your breath.

Because the pain of cluster headaches is so severe, you may find it hard or impossible to do the exercises during one. Or, you may find they just don't give you any added relief. Even then, there's still a reason to try them.

Breathing exercises can lower anxiety. So if you worry about your next attack, they're a good tool to help you stay even and relaxed.

Setting the Stage

There are different types of breathing you can try. No matter which one you use, it helps to:

  • Find a quiet space where you won't be bothered.
  • Sit down and get comfy.
  • Let go of your worries for a few minutes.

It's also best to set aside time for it each day. This regular practice will train your body to fall into the breathing more easily when you need it. If you only do it when you're in pain, it'll be much harder to really sink into it.

And keep in mind that these exercises are no substitute for medicine. They're something to use along with your normal treatment.

Deep Breathing

When you're stressed and anxious, you tend to take shorter breaths than usual. This exercise helps you reset. The aim is slow, deep, and steady breaths:

  • Put your focus on your belly button. You might even want to put a hand there to help.
  • As you breathe in through your nose, pull the air into your belly. Feel it expand as you fill up your lungs.
  • Breathe out through your nose with a long, slow breath. Pull your belly in as you empty out your lungs. You can even think to yourself, "Relax."

With each full, deep breath, your nervous system takes it down a notch.

Continued

Rhythmic Breathing

If your breathing style is usually short and fast, this exercise will help you slow it down a bit:

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose as you count to five.
  • Breathe out slowly through nose as you count to five.
  • Repeat and see if you can feel yourself relax with each breath.

As you notice yourself getting calmer, you give your body feedback that helps you relax even further.

Visualized Breathing

For this one, you combine breathing with pictures in your mind:

  • Get comfortable, close your eyes, and just breathe normally.
  • As you breathe in through your nose, picture calming air that fills up your lungs and expands your chest and belly. Imagine you're breathing in more and more relaxation.
  • As you breathe out, picture pushing the tension out right along with your breath.
  • Repeat, breathing in calm and out tension.

 

Oxygen Therapy

While deep breathing may not solve your cluster headaches, breathing pure oxygen might. First used for migraine, it's now very common for cluster headaches, too. It's pretty simple, and there are no side effects.

When the pain comes on, you breathe in oxygen through a special mask connected to a tank. Your doctor will tell you what rate of oxygen you need to take in. Studies show that 15 liters per minute works the best. Some doctors may start lower and dial it up as needed. You typically use it for about 15 minutes when the headache first comes on. 

It tends to work well at curbing your symptoms but it does have some drawbacks. Because some studies on oxygen therapy showed mixed results, not all insurance companies pay for it. You also need an oxygen tank. That limits where you can use it, though you might be able to get a small one to take on the go.

Oxygen also comes with a fire risk. You definitely can't smoke or be around people who do while you use it. And it's usually not a treatment you can use if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on November 12, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Cleveland Clinic: "Relaxation and Other Alternative Approaches for Managing Headaches."

American Family Physician: "Management of Cluster Headache."

National Health Service: "Seven Relaxation Tips to Help Headaches," "Cluster Headaches."

Nauman Tariq, MD, assistant professor of neurology, director of Headache Center, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Email exchange with Meghan Hickey, MD, general neurologist, Baystate Medical Center.

American Migraine Foundation: "Biofeedback and Relaxation Training for Headaches."

Sam Houston State University: "Headaches."

Migraine Trust: "Cluster Headache."

UCSF: "For the Most Painful Headaches, a Simple, Drug-Free Treatment Usually Works."

National Health Service, Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham: "Oxygen Therapy for Cluster Headaches."

Mayo Clinic: "Cluster Headache."

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