Not just muscles - physios treat headaches too

25 May 2023

Few people know that physios treat much more than just aches and pains, and one of their speciality areas is helping to manage headaches and migraines. At Habit Health, our physios are trained in using the Watson technique for treatment. Wellington-based physio Marie sheds some light on headaches and migraines and how we’re helping Kiwis across Aotearoa every day to get back to the things they love. Read on if you or a loved one has been trying to treat their headache or migraine with little improvement so far.

Why would someone see a physio for a headache?
Seeing a physio for a headache isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind for people. We often hear from people who have tried other avenues for treatment, which are then referred to us or are recommended through word-of-mouth. As physios, we use a range of different physio techniques on the neck and head and use the Watson technique specifically, which I cover below. 

What’s the difference between a headache and a migraine?
A headache presents pain or tension in the head. Whereas migraines may not always present with pain, and people instead experience visual changes or auras, fatigue, tinnitus and even nausea and vomiting. 

When do people often get headaches or migraines?
We often see people getting migraines around puberty or sometimes during or following a stressful period in a person’s life. Others might have a family history of headaches or migraines, and sometimes people just start to experience them out of the blue. Unfortunately, sometimes there’s no real rhyme or reason for getting them. 

How do you treat them?
We use the Watson technique, which focuses on the top three vertebrae in the top portion of the neck, including the joints and ligaments. 

This is where the trigeminal nerve is, which is the nerve that travels to three (that’s where the ‘tri’ comes from!) parts of the head and face - the eyes, nose and mouth. We work on creating more movement in the top half of the neck, where the nerve passes through. 

Dean Watson, a renowned physiotherapist from Australia, developed this technique. 

What can someone expect if they come to see a Habit Health physio for headache or migraine treatment?
We start by collecting a thorough history - we must cover our essential questions before deciding to move forward with treatment options.  

We consider other musculoskeletal issues a person might be experiencing, and we are also trained in pain management and concussion. We use our other skills as physios to consider the whole person and how this could play into the headache and migraines. 

We start with an initial one-hour session. The first half is used for assessment and information gathering. We discuss whether a person has had any major injuries or surgeries or if they have other medical conditions that we need to know about before moving forward with treatment.

For the treatment itself, we work with the pressure points, putting sustained pressure on the joints, assessing their feelings, and how the patient responds. 

The principle of the Watson technique is to work with the neck and head area to find pressure points where the client is experiencing symptoms. This helps us get to the root of the migraine or headache. In doing this, we improve the signal the joint is sending to the trigeminal nerve in the neck and head area. 

Ideally, we would do four sessions within two weeks and assess if this is the right line of treatment for a person.

What if it doesn’t work?
If a person isn’t responding to treatment and there is no change, we’ll sit down with them and look at other options. This might be a medication review with their GP or other avenues of neck treatment, whether other physio techniques or considering a referral to a Habit Health acupuncturist for some people.  

At the end of the day, we’ll always use all of the resources we have at our fingertips to help get people back to the things they love. 

Experiencing headaches or migraines? We’d love to help. Book in to talk with one of our physios today.

Call us today on 0800 557 556 to find a physio who's trained with Watson technique near you.