Some call cluster headaches "suicide headaches," because the pain can be so severe they've driven some people to consider taking their own lives. "It's described as having a hot bore put into your eye," says Frank Papay, MD, the Cleveland Clinic plastic surgeon who helped pioneer a new surgical approach to treat these and migraine headaches. A tiny electrode attached to a stimulator device (smaller than an almond) is threaded under the cheek to a bundle of nerves under the eye socket and behind the nose. The device modifies transmission of headache pain signals to the brain. "When you sense a headache coming on, you place a radiofrequency device about the size of a cell phone against your cheek," he says. "It activates the electrode that resets the nerve bundle and the headache goes away." In European studies, the device was 70% effective for cluster headaches. U.S. trials have started in 12 medical centers, and Papay hopes to have the devices implanted in 30 to 50 people by the fall of 2015.
Much of his understanding of face and skull anatomy that led to this breakthrough came from working on the team that performed the first near-total face transplant in the U.S. in 2008. "It's through this cross-networking of ideas and learning from one experiment to another that you come up with innovation," Papay says. The recipient of that procedure, Connie Culp, "is doing phenomenally well," he says. Yet he deflects much of the credit for his surgical success to his team members. "I'm part of a team always. It's the collaborative team approach that causes innovation." He also praises patients like Culp for their role in medical discovery. "She's truly the hero in all of this. She's the one who took on the burden," he says. "If we didn't have the heroism of these patients, there's no way we could proceed."
For Papay, one of the best things about being a WebMD Health Hero was the chance to meet other innovators and come up with new ideas to improve health care. So what's his next big idea? He's working on ways to use artificial intelligence to help patients better understand the medical procedures they get -- and on a pair of goggles that would help surgeons see tumors inside the body during an operation.