Cold Therapy for Migraines: Does Applying Cold Really Help Reduce Migraine Pain?

Reaching for your heating pad during an intense migraine, you might find yourself wondering, “Is this really the best approach? Maybe I should try something different this time. Maybe I should go for some ice instead.”  But will that really work?

Is cold an effective remedy for migraine pain?

Cold Therapy for Migraines: Does Applying Cold Really Help Reduce Migraine Pain?

Well, as a long-term migraine sufferer, I can tell you without a doubt that cold therapy is effective for migraine pain.

It’s not the best method I’ve found, but when pain meds aren’t doing the trick and you’re in a lot of agony, anything that helps is a major relief.

What is Cold Therapy?

First things first.  What is cold therapy?  It’s exactly what the name implies.  It is where you apply cold topically to your head in order to alleviate the pain of a migraine.  You can contrast it with heat therapy, where you apply heat instead.

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If you have ever used cold therapy, there is a good chance you did it because someone recommended it to you—perhaps your mother when you were a child, or another migraine sufferer.  Or perhaps you just thought of it because it seemed to make sense.  

In any case, the use of cold therapy for migraines goes back to the 19th century.  So anecdotally speaking, it has a well-established history.  

For my part, I gave it a try out of desperation.  When you are in lots of pain for a very long time (as I was), you have plenty of time to experiment.  The results for me were good enough that I keep an ice pack in the freezer at all times, ready to go in case I need it.

Is There Any Scientific Basis for Using Cold Therapy for Migraines?

Cold Therapy for Migraines: Does Applying Cold Really Help Reduce Migraine Pain?

All of this may leave you wondering whether cold therapy for migraines is effective because we think it should be—or because there really is a scientific basis for it.  

As of right now, there is not yet a lot of research out there on this topic.  There was this study published in 2006.  Cold therapy through the use of a gel cap was administered to 28 migraine patients, who then rated their pain on a visual analogue scale (VAS).  The researchers concluded that “[C]old application alone may be effective in some patients suffering from migraine attacks.”

This is hopeful research, but it is important to keep in mind that this was a small study, and that the scale used to assess improvements was subjective in nature.

Researchers have hypothesized about the mechanisms through which cold may help to relieve migraine pain.  It is believed that the cold may cause constriction in blood vessels while reducing swelling.

Furthermore, the numbing effect of cold is well-documented.  When your nerves are numbed, they are less effective in their ability to conduct pain messages, which can result in feeling less pain.

It is also thought that the endocrine system could play a role.  It may be that when you apply cold to certain tissues, they have a reduced need for oxygen owing to less metabolic activity.  

So is there a lot of proof backing up cold therapy for migraines?  Not yet, but preliminary research is optimistic, and there are several possible scientific explanations for how cold may be effective in reducing migraine severity or longevity.

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My Experiences With Cold Therapy

One of the reasons I write this blog is because I have been dealing with headaches for a very long time.  Since a lot of trial and error has gone into treating them effectively, I always like to share my experiences with readers.

So how effective is cold therapy from my experience?  I would say it varies pretty widely.  There are times when it makes very little difference save to slightly numb out an area that is in pain.  

But there are other times where applying cold for a long enough period results in the migraine being more or less wiped out (especially in combination with painkillers and/or coffee).  This makes me think that indeed there are additional mechanisms beyond numbing at play.

Just how long do you have to apply cold to get rid of a migraine?  I suspect this varies quite dramatically from one individual to the next.  But in my case, I get the most potent results if I am willing to apply the cold for about half an hour straight.  

The cold does not need to sit squarely on one spot for that whole time.  As my pain moves around, I usually move the cold pack around.  My goal is to numb out the largest possible area as effectively as I can for an extended time period.

Naturally this is not all that convenient if you are doing things with your hands, so it does me no good while working, but it works great while watching TV or doing other passive activities.

Best Options for Applying Cold Therapy

Cold Therapy for Migraines: Does Applying Cold Really Help Reduce Migraine Pain?

What is the best way to apply cold to your head with a migraine?  There are actually a surprisingly large number of options.  Let’s take a look at a few of them now.

1. Ice

Well, your first option is the most basic.  If you have ice in your freezer, you can apply it to your head.  You don’t want to burn your skin with it (or struggle to hold onto it), so you should stick it inside something like a washcloth or a plastic bag.  It will drip as it starts to melt (even inside a bag, condensation will form), so have a bowl handy to catch the drippings.  Squeeze it out every few minutes to minimize the mess.

This is probably the least convenient option available to you, but in a pinch, it works, and you don’t need to buy anything.  I used ice in a plastic bag for years before I realized there are much better ways to apply cold therapy to my head.  Let’s check them out.

2. Basic Cold Pack (rigid or gel)

Your next option is to go out and buy some kind of basic all-purpose cold pack.  Believe it or not, I actually use a basic cold pack designed for keeping food cool—like this.  It’s hard and is about as cold as actual ice when I pull it out of the freezer.  

It’s not overly “comfortable,” but I don’t particularly care.  I had one handy which I bought for use in my cooler, and realized it fit my needs with my migraines.  It does drip condensation, but only a little, and it stays fairly cold for about as long as I need.

If you want something intended for topical application (and perhaps more comfortable), you can always get an all-purpose medical gel pack like this.  Gel packs are nice because you can cool them down or heat them up, depending on what you need to use them for.  Plus, you can use these on any part of your body, so they are great all-purpose items.

3. Cold Pack Designed Specifically for Headaches

If you want to make your life even easier, you can shop for a cold pack which was designed specifically for those who suffer from migraines.  

I’ve gone ahead and found some top products to recommend based on customer reviews, popularity, price, and design.

  • TrekProof Reusable Hot and Cold Gel Wrap with Strap: This product is very reasonably priced and has great reviews.  It’s a gel wrap which you can heat up or cool down as needed.  The strap it comes with is adjustable, so you can use it on your head or anywhere else on your body.
  • TheraPAQ Reusable Ice Pack: This product is similar to the one above, and is in around the same price range.  It is even more popular, and likewise consists of a gel pack and a strap.  It is rather large, so you may find it unwieldy, but it is possible to attach it to your head.  You may find it useful in some circumstances.  I would think it would be useful while lying down, and would probably be ideal for pain felt in the back of your head.
  • Amethya Hot/Cold Therapy Eye Mask: If you are shopping on a budget, this is one of the better deals you are going to find.  Even though this product doesn’t have as many ratings as others on the market, those which it has are very positive.  It is a hot/cold ice pack designed to rest over your eyes and temples while you are lying down.  It is slightly heavy, providing some pressure (which can be helpful as well in easing some headaches).  
  • Eye Mask from Thrive: This is a similar concept to the product just discussed, except for a couple of distinctions.  The first is that the mask is thinner and lighter.  The second is that it has a strap.  That means that you can wear it while sitting upright.  What is the point of that if you can’t see anyway?  Well, sometimes a migraine is made worse by lying down.  So if you want to apply cold to your eyes and temples while sitting up, this is a great way to do it.
  • Migraine Hat: If you experience your migraine pain largely on the top part of your head, then you may find this migraine hat helpful.  The cap has a simple and stylish design, and contains a number of cryo-gel ice packs.  It is adjustable so that you can get the perfect fit.  With the hat on, both your hands are free and you can see, so you can go about your business and do whatever you want.  In fact, I think this would probably be a useful solution for migraine relief at work (assuming there is no policy against hats at your workplace).
  • The Original Headache Hat: Like the concept of the hat above, but looking for more flexibility in how you wear your hat?  With this hat, you can wear it on top of your head without covering your eyes, or you can wear it so that it covers your eyes (or even more of your face if you want).  I will say that it is not as stylish as the Migraine Hat (which more or less looks like a regular hat, whereas this does not), but it does offer you more adaptability.  
  • Ice Halo: This product can be used for workouts, tension headaches, or migraines.  It doesn’t cover your entire head—it is shaped just like a regular sweatband.  What is nice about this is that it is unobtrusive enough that you can go about your regular activities.  You can adjust it as needed to target different pain areas.  You could even wear it over your eyes if you wanted.  And because it is like a sweat band, it even applies some pressure to your head.  

So you can see that there are a lot of options out there.  Whatever it is you are looking for in terms of pain relief, there is an ideal product out there that will help you to get the soothing respite you are looking for.  

RELATED: How To Get Rid Of A Migraine Once and For All (Step-by-Step) 

Remember … Heat for Tension Headaches, Cold for Migraines

Cold Therapy for Migraines: Does Applying Cold Really Help Reduce Migraine Pain?

One thing I haven’t talked about in this article is the difference between tension headaches and migraines and what type of treatment is best for each.

I have both tension headaches and migraines.  Tension headaches are (as their name indicates) caused by muscle tension.  Migraines have other (complex) causative factors.

I have found that in general, the best rule is this:

  • Heat for tension headaches
  • Cold for migraines

Is it a hard rule?  No.  I have certainly used ice effectively for tension headaches and heat effectively for migraines.  But overall, ice has been far more helpful for migraines than it has been for tension headaches.  Heat on the other hand actually seems pretty useful for treating both—but ice can often outperform it for a migraine.

I figure the explanation for this is pretty simple.  You want tense muscles to loosen up.  Ice is not going to help with that—in fact, it can make your muscles more tense.  Heat on the other hand loosens them up.

As to ice and migraines, you already know what the underlying mechanisms might be for its effectiveness.

Sometimes I have a migraine and a tension headache simultaneously.  In those cases, I may even use heat and ice at the same time.  Most of my muscle tension is from my neck and shoulders, so I may use a heating pad there while using ice on my face.

One thing I will recommend is this.  If you feel compelled to use ice on a spot where you are dealing with muscle tension, follow it up with heat.  That way you will loosen up the muscles after you have completed the ice treatment, which hopefully will prevent a tension headache from continuing (or ensuing).

Conclusion: Cold Therapy Makes a Great Treatment for Migraines

If you want to numb the pain of a migraine and potentially reduce its severity and duration, cold therapy is something you can try.  Remember, your mileage may vary.  Some people get amazing results while others experience no improvement.  For a lot of people, the results will be somewhere in the middle.  Experiment and see what works for you.  Hopefully cold therapy will be a valuable home treatment for combating your headaches.  

Read Next: The Top 8 Natural Migraine Headache Remedies