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Pandemic headache keeps physio busy

Watson Headache Practitioner Peter O'Toole
Photo: Post-pandemic headache keeps physio busy
Roger O'Toole, Director and Senior Clinician at the Melbourne Headache Centre, said his clinic experienced the busiest month in over a year due to an influx of pandemic headaches and people seeking advice on how to treat the condition.

A Watson Headache Practitioner who has treated headaches, migraines and related disorders exclusively for over a decade, Mr O'Toole was not entirely surprised by the number of people making enquires following pandemic-related lifestyle challenges.

While social distancing restrictions decreased clientele temporarily, Mr O'Toole said the following months reflected the collective stress experienced by Australians on several fronts, from home-schooling to working from home.
"Stress is a big trigger with the uncertainty around COVID-19 and employment. But also having to adjust to working from home, with both partners plus children in some cases trying to find a suitable and ergonomic space to use, has caused a lot of postural stress."

The Watson Headache Approach is a sequence of manual therapy techniques designed to identify and manage relevant disorders in the upper cervical spine. The approach is medication-free, non-invasive and is a key method in diagnosing and treating headache conditions.

"Regular physiotherapy is great for treating cervicogenic or the 'neck pain' headache. The Watson Headache Approach doesn't really target neck pain but instead uses the top of the neck to calm down the brainstem - the area where the symptoms of headache come from."

The overactive brainstem is like a coffee cup that is three-quarters full, explained Mr O'Toole, and migraineurs are constantly managing triggers to not 'spill the cup over'.

"The Watson Headache Approach helps to 'empty the cup,' giving the system more capacity to cope with triggers, no matter what they might be - food, stress, weather, hormones, or bright light.

"So, we are not limited to treating only those clients who present with obvious neck pain - as typical in physiotherapy, chiropractic and osteopathy. But we use the fact that the nerves from the top of the neck feed directly into the 'headache centre' of the brainstem to calm it down, desensitise it - empty the cup.

"It's a very niche area of physiotherapy that is not well understood. When I saw the results that I could achieve in people, who in some cases have 20 to 30-year histories of migraine, to be able to change their condition in a matter of weeks, it inspired me!

"I have treated over 3000 sufferers, who have experienced tension headache, migraine with and without aura, cyclical vomiting syndrome, cervicogenic headache, vestibular migraine, silent migraine."

Despite a passion for treating headaches, this area of physiotherapy is not without its challenges due to a lack of acceptance by some in the medical community and the complex nature of headaches, explained Mr O'Toole. 

"Doctors are taught that the neck is irrelevant [to headaches] when, in fact, it is the strongest input into the system known to be at fault.

"The other challenge is that chronic headaches are always multifactorial and teasing out how much of the problem is neck-based, compared to sleep, diet or stress can be a challenge.

"But we can determine the role of the neck within a few sessions and make significant change within two weeks, regardless of how long people have suffered."

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.