Migraine headaches are severely painful and usually occur with other symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and painful sensitivity to light while, cluster headaches cause sharp, burning pain on one side of the head.
In a systematic review of nine small studies involving 201 participants, the researchers assessed normobaric oxygen therapy and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
Normobaric therapy consists of patients inhaling pure oxygen at normal room pressure, and hyperbaric therapy involves patients breathing oxygen at higher pressure in a specially designed chamber.
"We wanted to locate and assess any evidence from randomized trials that oxygen administration was a safe and effective treatment for migraine or cluster headaches," said lead reviewer Michael Bennett, of Diving and Hyperbaric Medicine at Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney.
"We hoped this would assist physicians to make effective treatment decisions in this area," he added.
Five studies compared hyperbaric versus sham (placebo) therapy for migraine; two compared hyperbaric versus sham therapy for cluster headache; and two investigated the use of normobaric therapy for cluster headache.
They found that patients given hyperbaric therapy had significant relief from migraines within 40 to 45 minutes.
For cluster headaches, a significantly greater proportion of patients had relief of their headaches after 15 minutes of normobaric compared to sham therapy.
The reviewers concluded that hyperbaric treatment might give some relief for migraine headache and that normobaric therapy might provide similar relief for cluster headache, but there is no evidence that these therapies will prevent future attacks.
"We believe that hyperbaric oxygen is also a reasonable measure for migraineurs who have not responded to other measures to treat an acute attack," said Bennett.
"However, the poor availability of hyperbaric chambers makes this an option only in a minority of health facilities," he added.
However, Dr John Kirchner, of the Kirchner Headache Clinic in Omaha, Neb., said he does not include oxygen therapy in his patients' treatment plans.
"This [oxygen therapy] would not be practical as the headache comes on fast and does not last long," he said. "So there would not be time to get the patient to the chamber."
The review appears in the current issue of The Cochrane Library, a publication of The Cochrane Collaboration.