Houstonian Will Erwin took his own life at age 24 after years of suffering from cluster headaches, often called "suicide headaches" for their excruciating pain. Will's parents, Pam and Jimmy Erwin were determined for some good to come out of their son's tragedy.
The couple established the Will Erwin Headache Research Foundation, a non-profit that channels money into cluster headache research. Its goal is to find a cure for these life-changing and debilitating headaches and connect and bring relief to the community of headache sufferers, family, and friends whose lives are impacted by the disorder.
Historically, government funding for cluster headache research has been comparatively small over the last decade, leaving a huge gap that's needed to be filled. The Foundation pledged $20 million and partnered with the Memorial Hermann Healthcare System and The University of Texas Health Science Center at the McGovern Medical School to create the Will Erwin Headache Research Center, where leading research into cluster headaches is ongoing.
"These headaches, by definition, are not mild," says Dr. Mark Burish, who leads the Headache Research Center. "Patients can be in an extreme amount of pain for hours at a time. It can be incredibly hard to work, spend time with your family, or do anything while you have a headache."
The Foundation also helps to fund migraine research. For many people, migraine headache symptoms can be so extreme that those who suffer from them can vomit or have so much light sensitivity that they can't stand to look at a screen. Migraines affect more than 10% of people, says Burish, who's an assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, a neurologist, and interventional pain specialist. "It's important to find a cure," he says.
In current, cutting-edge research, Burish, along with Drs. Seung-Hee Yoo and Zheng Chen of UTHealth, has been looking at the daily rhythm of headaches. Cluster headache patients often have headaches at the same time each day like clockwork, and their headaches seem to get worse during the same few months every year.
"We think this may be a key to understanding how a cluster headache turns on, and hopefully will be a key to understanding how to turn it off," Burish says.
The Will Erwin Headache Research Center also supports headache patients themselves, and especially in the greater Houston area, by treating their headaches.
Ultimately, the research center's goal is to be obsolete. Burish hopes for a day when headache treatment is so effective and so simple, and the scientific community's understanding of headaches is so complete that the center isn't necessary. "Until then," he says, "we can't rest."
For more information or to donate to the Will Erwin Headache Research Foundation, visit cureheadaches.org.