Page last updated at 05:59 GMT, Tuesday, 19 August 2008 06:59 UK

Headache woman's 'bionic' surgery

By Hywel Griffith
BBC News

Valerie Hobbs
Valerie Hobbs had to wait for three years for funding for the surgery

A patient who spent three years campaigning for surgery to help her control a debilitating brain condition has finally had her operation.

Valerie Hobbs of Tenby, Pembrokeshire, suffers from chronic cluster headaches - sudden bursts of pain that strike two or three times a day.

She has now had an Occipital Nerve Stimulator implant fitted.

It connects her brain to a battery emitting an electrical pulse which has been shown to help reduce pain.

Her friends now call her 'bionic woman' following the surgery at a clinic in London.

"It's the end of a long road," said Mrs Hobbs.

"But it is also the start of another one, because there's no way of predicting what will happen to me afterwards."

I never know when I'm going to have another attack - it would be great if I could reduce that enough to live a reasonably normal life
Valerie Hobbs

Cluster headaches cannot be cured, but the electric nerve treatment has been shown to help reduce pain levels in many patients.

"I'm hoping it will be sufficient for me to think about working again - which at the moment is impossible," Ms Hobbs said.

"I never know when I'm going to have another attack - it would be great if I could reduce that enough to live a reasonably normal life."

The procedure works by implanting a battery pack into the patient's abdomen and tunnelling a wire through the body.

It is then connected to the occipital nerves at the back of the head.

The operation was carried out by Consultant Neurosurgeon, Laurence Watkins, at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, on Friday, who has treated dozens of patients suffering from chronic headaches.

Picture of Valerie Hobbs
Mrs Hobbs had needed oxygen to breathe after an attack

"There's an abnormality deep inside the brain," Mr Watkins explained.

"And we're just lucky that nature has provided us with these nerves which connect into that system.

"By stimulating them in a particular way, we can affect the abnormality and hopefully improve the headaches."

Until this year Ms Hobbs had been denied funding for the treatment by Health Commission Wales - the body responsible for specialist procedures.

She had considered moving to England, in the hope that a Primary Care Trust across the border would be willing to pay the 15,000 cost.

The only other way Ms Hobbs had of controlling the headaches was through repeatedly taking injections and using oxygen to help her breathe after every attack.

If the Occipital Nerve Stimulator is shown to be successful, she hopes other patients will also now receive funding for treatment.


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