How ice packs and cold therapy effectively treat migraines and head pain

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How ice packs and cold therapy effectively treat migraines and head pain

There’s no doubt that the sudden onset of migraine can take over and ruin your day at any time. 

Severe head and facial pain, vomiting, nausea and other accompanying symptoms are temporarily disabling for over 4 million migraineurs who, according to the Migraine Research Foundation, get at least 15 attacks per month, with each bout lasting from 4 to 72 hours. 

As a complex neurological condition, there’s no universal approach to migraine treatment. So instead of heading off to the nearest medicine cabinet, why not take that stash of ice packs from the fridge, or make your own?  

Here’s a heads up on how cold therapy can relieve your stubborn and chronic head pains, as well as a few things to keep in mind when using temperature therapy. 

What are the benefits of cold therapy? 

  • Enhances the lymphatic and immune systems  Your lymphatic system cleanses your body by taking away waste from your cells. Composed of a network of vessels, this system relies on muscle contraction to pump the lymph fluid through the vessels. Applying cold therapy causes your lymph vessels to contract, letting your lymphatic system pump fluids throughout your body and flush the waste away. This signals the immune system’s white blood cells to attack and destroy any unwanted substance in the fluid. 
  • Improves circulation  When subjected to cold temperatures, your blood vessels constrict, causing blood to rush to your vital organs. This forces your heart to work harder to pump blood around the body, supplying every part with the oxygen and nutrients it needs
  • Reduces inflammation  Cold water immersion is proven to be effective in reducing muscle soreness. Athletes and high-intensity workout addicts suffering from delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) are known to harness the power of cold baths for quick recovery.   
  • Helps with depression – Boosting your mood with a cold shower may be more effective than taking prescription medications, according to this study. Exposure to cold activates mood-boosting neurotransmitters and increases the production of feel-good chemicals in your body, giving you an antidepressant effect. So, if you’re about to give up the battle against migraines, have a cold shower to pick you up and help you carry on.   

Are there studies about the efficacy of cold therapy on headaches and migraines?

The idea of using cold therapy to treat headaches and as an anesthetic for skin diseases and surgical operations was first broached by Dr. James Arnott in 1849. 

Since then, few studies have given credence to the efficacy of cold packs in easing headaches and migraines. A 1986 study upheld the healing powers of cold therapy for head pain, where 71 percent of patients considered an ice gel pack effective, with 52 percent reporting immediate pain reduction. A frozen neck ice pack applied immediately at the onset of migraine pain was also found to be effective, reducing pain for 77 percent of these 2013 study participants. 

How does cold therapy help with migraine pain?

According to the aforementioned studies, cold therapy works by acting as an analgesic —constricting the blood vessels and reducing the transmission of pain messages to the brain. 

In the case of the 2013 study, researchers hypothesized that the neck ice pack cooled the blood flowing to the carotid arteries, composed of major blood vessels, that supply blood to the brain, neck and face. This cooling effect helped reduce inflammation and eased the pain among migraine sufferers.

Which ice packs can you use to treat migraines?

Migraines and cluster headaches are two types of head pain caused by blood vessel problems. Both headache types can benefit from cold therapy, being that a low temperature causes the vessels to constrict, reducing inflammation and swelling.

Here are a few tools to chill your throbbing head:  

  • Multi-purpose ice packs  You can use a multi-purpose gel pack on your forehead or the base of your skull to relieve aches. 
  • Specialized ice packs – Most headaches affect your eyes, neck and face. For these types of pain, an eye mask, a neck ice pack, or a facial mask offer targeted therapy and instant comfort.  
  • Head ice cap  This highly recommended migraine pain reliever fits your head perfectly and offers the right amount of compression for a more intense cooling experience. It can be used over your forehead or even pulled down to cover your eyes and your entire face. It’s guaranteed to make you feel better instantly, whichever way you prefer to wear it.  

If you don’t have an ice pack, you can make your own using common household products. 

  • DIY ice packs – Mix either corn syrup, liquid dish soap, rubbing alcohol or salt with water. Pour the mixture in a resealable plastic bag and pop it in the freezer or fridge. If you want a quick solution, gather some ice cubes or crushed ice and place them in a resealable plastic bag. Don’t forget to cover with a towel or cloth before placing it on your head or neck. 

Even without ice packs, you can still cool your head with this natural and instant headache fix: 

  • Cold shower  Having the same impact as applying cold packs on your head, a cold shower can numb the pain, refresh you and fix that queasy feeling of yours. 

If your neck muscles feel tense, it is better, however, to take a hot shower to relax your knotted muscles.

How to use an ice pack to treat a headache or a migraine

Using ice packs for cold applications is easy: you only need to pop it in the freezer for about two hours and you can use it right away. 

Heating it via the microwave may be tricky, as you need to warm it in 10 or 15 second increments a few times to arrive at your desired temperature. 

If you’re using a multi-purpose ice pack for headaches and migraines, put the ice pack either over the painful section of your head or at the base of your skull. Keep the ice on for 15 to 20 minutes and then take it off for an hour. Use it on and off alternately until the pain subsides. 

What are the possible side effects of cold therapy?

Cold therapy remains one of the safest pain management methods you can do at home with only one known potential negative impact: receiving an ice burn.

To avoid ice burn or a tissue damage stemming from overuse, do not apply ice on your injury for more than 20 minutes. Putting it directly on your bare skin is also a no-no, so cover the ice with a thin cloth before application.    

How do you know it’s time to remove the cold pack?

Skin sensitivity varies from one person to another, and in these cases, it’s okay to veer away from the 15- or 20-minute ice application rule. Instead of a timer, you may rely on your body’s sensory response to know when to remove the ice. 

When a cold pack touches your skin, your body will feel cold at first. After a few minutes, a burning sensation sets in, followed by aching and numbness. Experiencing numbness signals for you to remove the ice.

Who should avoid using cold therapy for migraines?

If you have pre-existing health conditions or are pregnant, discuss with your doctor before embarking on any form of treatment, even if it is deemed safe.  

Temperature therapy is best avoided by persons with circulatory problems, diabetes or skin conditions because they have sensory issues that make extreme temperatures undetectable.

How about heat therapy for migraines?

Heat therapy works best on chronic pain. Tension-type headaches, or those caused by tense muscles, can benefit from thermotherapy, as the heat alleviates migraine pain by relaxing the muscles and stimulating oxygen and blood flow to the affected area. 

Thermotherapy may be applied through a heat pad, taking a warm shower or bath or warming a multi-purpose gel pack and other specially-made packs, such as an eye mask, a neck ice pack or a facial mask

Can you use both hot and cold therapies for migraines?

Contrast therapy, or alternating the use of cold and heat therapies, may be more effective for some. A contrasting cold shower and warm bath is both relaxing and pain-relieving for people with migraines. 

If your symptoms are not alleviated by temperature therapy, it’s best to consult with your doctor. 


Migraines are a common yet poorly-understood genetic neurological disorder. As scientists continue to understand how they work, there is no single treatment yet available, and sufferers are left to rely on medicines and other alternative remedies, with temperature therapy being the most preferred method. 

Have you been using ice packs to ease migraines, too? Care to share your experience with us?

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