A person holds their head with their hands.
Cluster headaches, along with others such as migraine and even some of the more common tension-type, won’t go away on their own. They require regular treatment by a medical expert. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Most people have experienced pounding, throbbing headaches that left them wishing only to lie down until the pain subsides.

Normally, over-the-counter medication and time helps individuals feel like themselves again.

But Ronald Kaledas has been suffering for almost 25 years from chronic headaches so severe he isn’t able to do that. It just worsens the pain.

In fact, Kaledas admitted the attacks can be so excruciating that sometimes he has considered suicide as his only out.

That’s not an uncommon desire of people who suffer from debilitating cluster headaches that may go away for a time but are certain to return, said Jared Pomeroy, MD, a headache specialist in Spectrum Health Medical Group Neurology.

“These headaches are so severe they’ve been nicknamed ‘suicide headaches,’” Dr. Pomeroy said. “Actual suicides don’t occur very often, but the desire gives you an idea of how intense this kind of pain can be for a patient.”

Often misdiagnosed

Cluster headaches, along with others such as migraine and even some of the more common tension-type, won’t go away on their own. They require regular treatment by a medical expert. Unfortunately, while the patient may get some relief from the pain, causes of the headaches and a cure have not yet been discovered.

“If you develop this type of headache disorder, see a primary care doctor right away,” Dr. Pomeroy said.

Kaledas, of Rodney, Michigan, estimated that for about the first 20 years the headaches went misdiagnosed.

Generally, cluster headaches affect men more than women.

In men, they usually begin when the individual is in his 20s to 40s. They are a very severe, one-sided pain, associated with drooping eyelid, change in pupil size, nose congestion or running nose and red eye. A sensation of fullness in one ear can also occur. The headaches are relatively uncommon, affecting less than 1 in 1,000 adults.

Kaledas, 58, is a classic example of a person suffering from this ailment. He said the headaches always are on his right side and he has experienced all of the symptoms except the stuffy ear.

“When I was in my 30s, I was very healthy and so initially, when I got the headaches, I thought it was a sinus condition,” Kaledas said. “I took sinus sprays but I didn’t get better.”

The condition isn’t easy

The cluster headaches come mostly in the fall and the spring, never in the summer and rarely in the winter, said Kaledas, who was a woodworker but is on disability. They occur at night about an hour or so after he goes to bed. They come back every night for about a month.

“They just stop and then come back for a couple weeks,” Kaledas said. “It’s very random. When it starts, it’s immediate and when it stops it just goes away, there’s no tapering off.”

Dr. Pomeroy said this is the pattern for Kaledas. It can vary for other cluster headache patients.

During the bouts, Kaledas doesn’t get much rest. It’s an ailment he prefers to suffer by himself because it’s so misunderstood, even by family members.

To deal with the attacks, he said he plays a game.

“I go down in the basement; I don’t want my wife seeing this,” he said. “I pace and say in 15 minutes I’m going to the emergency room. However, I never really go. I go another 15 minutes. I’m right on the edge of what I can personally take as far as pain.”

Kaledas has been married to his wife, Colleen, for six years.

“She tries to understand, but to be honest, I do my best to hide it from her,” he said. “She sometimes sees me and asks what she can do, but there’s nothing she can do.”

He said it’s an ailment you can’t escape.

In many cases, the solution, although not perfect, is to find a treatment that will lessen the pain and help the patient get through the headache periods.

For Kaledas, using oxygen seems to help but he’s going to Dr. Pomeroy to hopefully find more efficient and effective pain management solutions.

Numerous treatments

Treatments for cluster headaches range from oxygen use to various medications.

Even lifestyle changes can help. These include revamping a person’s diet and adding exercise to the individual’s routine. Stress-reduction techniques such as yoga also can help deal with the pain, Dr. Pomeroy said.

He cautioned that overuse of medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter, can do more harm than good. It actually can worsen the intensity of headaches. In such overuse situations, he said IV infusions might be necessary to give the patient relief.

“It’s important that, generally, headache patients maintain healthy sleep patterns and limit or avoid caffeine and tobacco,” Dr. Pomeroy said.

Although there is no known cause or cure for chronic headaches, those who develop them usually are predisposed to them. Genetics is believed to play a role.

While researchers try to find a cure, patients such as Kaledas are gaining new hope through such physicians.

“I just feel rejuvenated since going to see Dr. Pomeroy,” Kaledas said, “I have a lot of hope going forward. He’s not going to give up and he’s going to do everything he can. He understands what I’m going through.”

Don’t let an ongoing headache control your life. For more information or to schedule an appointment, call 616.267.7900.