Ketamine for Refractory Headache: A Retrospective Analysis

Reg Anesth Pain Med. 2018 Nov;43(8):875-879. doi: 10.1097/AAP.0000000000000827.


Background and objectives: The burden of chronic headache disorders in the United States is substantial. Some patients are treatment refractory. Ketamine, an N-methyl-D-aspartate antagonist, provides potent analgesia in subanesthetic doses in chronic pain, and limited data suggest it may alleviate headache in some patients.

Methods: We performed a retrospective study of 61 patients admitted over 3 years for 5 days of intravenous therapy that included continuous ketamine to determine responder rate and patient and ketamine infusion characteristics. Pain ratings at 2 follow-up visits were recorded. An immediate responder was a patient with decrease of 2 points or greater in the numerical rating scale (0-10) from start to final pain in the hospital. Sustained response at office visits 1 and 2 was determined based on maintaining the 2-point improvement at those visits. Patients were assessed daily for pain and adverse events (AEs).

Results: Forty-eight (77%) of the 61 patients were immediate responders. There were no differences regarding demographics, opioid use, or fibromyalgia between immediate responders and nonresponders. Maximum improvement occurred 4.56 days (mean) into treatment. Sustained response occurred in 40% of patients at visit 1 (mean, 38.1 days) and 39% of patients at visit 2 (mean, 101.3 days). The mean maximum ketamine rate was 65.2 ± 2.8 mg/h (0.76 mg/kg per hour). Ketamine rates did not differ between groups. Adverse events occurred equally in responders and nonresponders and were mild.

Conclusions: Ketamine was associated with short-term analgesia in many refractory headache patients with tolerable adverse events. A prospective study is warranted to confirm this and elucidate responder characteristics.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Analgesics / administration & dosage*
  • Female
  • Follow-Up Studies
  • Headache Disorders / diagnosis
  • Headache Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Humans
  • Infusions, Intravenous
  • Ketamine / administration & dosage*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain, Intractable / diagnosis
  • Pain, Intractable / drug therapy*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Young Adult


  • Analgesics
  • Ketamine