Valley Voices

All roads pointed to cluster headaches

The Miami Herald

There I was, sitting in my senior-year morning class, inside the newly built Central High School East campus when it hit me.

I remember that day clearly, because it was when things would take a challenging turn in my life. As the teacher lectured on the topic of the morning, I felt a tingling in my left ear, followed by a runny nose. Within seconds, there was a sharp pain in my left eye. It almost felt like a bee sting or something sharp had hit my eyeball.

Immediately, I put my head down and closed my eyes. The pain intensified. The feeling wasn’t normal. My system was weakened and my stomach felt bloated.

A few minutes had passed, but it felt like hours. I asked to be excused and quickly made my way to the nurse’s office. I was sent home. The nurse could see the pain I was in. During the car ride home, I didn’t want to talk or move. I simply wanted to just close my eyes.

When I got home, I quickly ran to my bed, got underneath my covers and tried to sleep the pain away. Every smell felt exaggerated, every sound magnified. The dog barking from down the street felt like it was right next to my ear.

My mother wondered what was wrong and tried to help, but I didn’t want to be bothered, so I asked to be left alone. Instead of leaving me, she sat at the corner of my bed quietly massaging my back. After two long hours of being in excruciating pain, my headache went away.

With a burst of energy, I completed the things I needed to do. Once the pain was gone, it was as though I was a different person. Full of energy and wanting to complete tasks early, before their due date.

Two days later, at the same time, a repeat occurred. The same tingling in my left ear began in the same class during the same time. So again, like the movie “Groundhog Day,” the pattern continued with the same intense pain in my left eye.

This time we made an appointment and saw the doctor. After numerous tests, scans and visits with the experts, all roads pointed to the rare and wicked “cluster headache.”

Cluster headaches impact fewer than one person in every thousand. The name comes from the fact that the headaches occur in cyclical patterns or “clusters.” Although symptoms are different for each sufferer, most people report eye watering, nasal congestion, swelling around the eye, as well as the feeling of a sharp object stabbing or burning the eyeball.

The cause of these headaches is unknown, but it is common for sufferers to believe they are having migraines. Experts believe finding the trigger for these non-life-threatening headaches can prevent them and make life easier for sufferers.

Today, every few years, my cluster headache cycle comes and goes for a few weeks, I carefully monitor what I eat and drink and make sure that I have my medicine available. My unwanted visitor has caused me to change some things in my lifestyle that I enjoyed over the years. For cluster headache sufferers, the triggers may be different.

As brutal and unwelcome as cluster headaches are, they have taught me a lot about myself, my family and even people in our community. For instance, I recall my freshman year of college when, during a headache episode, I decided to visit the emergency room of a local hospital. There, the emergency room doctor directed the nurse to place an oxygen mask on me.

He would quietly enter my room asking the nurse for updates and monitoring my levels. Even though it was obvious he didn’t have many patients with these headaches, he wanted to make sure I was doing well and tried his hardest.

The prayers and well wishes from my friends and family have been touching. I have told them like I tell everyone else, don’t feel sorry for me. Long gone are the days where I play victim. We all have our battles and challenges. For me, even with these headaches, life has been seamless.

It could be far worse; just look at the different struggles facing those in our community and throughout the world. My heart goes out to those who are chronic sufferers of cluster headaches whose cycle continues without a lapse time. The silver lining is that many sufferers report that these headaches one day disappeared and never came back.

June is National Headache Awareness Month, where purple will be worn to show support for headache advocacy, awareness, education and research. Let’s remember the millions of Americans who suffer from headaches in the different forms.

Sevag Tateosian is host and producer of The Central Valley Ledger (formerly San Joaquin Spotlight) on 90.7 FM KFSR Fresno and CMAC Comcast 93 and AT&T 99.