Intranasal ketamine for acute cluster headache attacks—Results from a proof-of-concept open-label trial

To investigate the safety and efficacy of intranasal ketamine for the treatment of a single cluster headache (CH) attack.

Acute treatment options for patients with CH who have an insufficient response to oxygen and triptans are limited. Intranasal ketamine has anecdotally been successful in treating a CH attack.

We conducted an open-label pilot study enrolling 23 patients with chronic CH (International Classification of Headache Disorders, 3rd edition), and of these, 20 patients treated a single CH attack with intranasal ketamine. Under in-hospital observation, patients received 15 mg of intranasal ketamine every 6 min a maximum of five times. The primary endpoint was a 50% reduction in pain intensity within 15 min after initiating treatment.

The primary endpoint was not met; 15 min after the first ketamine administration, the mean reduction in pain intensity was 1.1 (95% confidence interval [CI]: −0.6 to 2.7, p = 0.188) on the numeric rating scale (NRS), equivalent to a 15% reduction in pain intensity. However, 30 min after the first application, the pain intensity was reduced by 59% on an 11-point NRS (mean difference: 4.3, 95% CI: 2.4–6.2, p < 0.001, N = 16) and 11 out of 16 (69%) scored 4 or below on the NRS. Four patients received rescue medication 15 min after the first ketamine application and were therefore excluded from the analysis at 30 min. Half of the patients preferred ketamine to oxygen and/or sumatriptan injection. No serious adverse events were identified during the trial.

Intranasal ketamine may be an effective acute treatment for CH at 30 min but should be tested in a larger controlled design. Patients and physicians should be conscious of the abuse potential of ketamine.