The University Record, September 10, 1997

Researchers say sleep patterns may cause cluster headaches

By Pete Barkey
Medical Center Public Relations

Could the way people sleep cause the excruciatingly painful disorder known as cluster headaches? That question is being examined by researchers at the Medical Center's Sleep Disorders Clinic.

Ronald D. Chervin, assistant professor of neurology, and Sarah T. Nath, clinical neurophysiology fellow, have begun a clinical trial to determine what role sleep may play in cluster headaches.

Recent studies determined that many cluster headache patients also suffered from sleep disorders. Nath and Chervin believe sleep patterns may have a significant influence on cluster headaches and they hope their clinical trial will point toward new and better treatment for people who suffer from the debilitating headaches, for which there is no known cure.

Cluster headaches are intensely painful and, like migraines, are vascular headaches-meaning they involve abnormal function of the brain's blood vessels or vascular system. The name "cluster" is derived from the fact that periods of frequent, intensely painful headaches tend to be separated by pain-free intervals.

The headaches usually begin as pain around one eye that eventually expands to that side of the face. The sufferer commonly becomes extremely agitated and the pain can be unbearable. Other symptoms can include runny nose and a droopy eyelid over a red, tearing eye. The attacks usually last up to an hour and can strike several times a day for weeks or months, then disappear for long periods, only to resume again.

Medicinal treatment of cluster headaches is problematic because the headaches start suddenly and don't last long. The pain often can be lessened, but rarely eliminated.

The typical cluster headache sufferer is a man with rugged facial appearance and coarse-looking skin, although women and children also can get them. Many cluster patients are heavy smokers and drinkers. Quite often, the headaches occur at night.

Nath and Chervin plan to study 50 people with cluster headaches and monitor their sleep patterns. They are looking for patients who are age 18 and over, suffer from cluster headaches, are not critically ill and are not pregnant. Anyone interested in taking part in the study should call 936-9158.