Why Do Ice Packs Feel Good When You Have a Migraine?

Does your mom’s advice hold up?

  • Cold therapy as a migraine relief measure was first documented as early as 1849.
  • Exactly how cold works to ease migraine pain is poorly understood.
  • Ice could contribute to relief through the vascular system, the neurologic system or the endocrine system.

When we asked you in our migraine community about what Mom taught you about migraine care, a lot of the motherly advice included using a cool cloth or ice pack during migraine attacks to help soothe the pain.

So that got us thinking: Why does a cooling agent feel good for some migraine sufferers? Here’s a look at what the research says on using ice packs for migraines.

“Cold Therapy” Is a Common Measure


… and an old one: Cold therapy as a migraine relief measure was first documented as early as 1849. 1

Today, even go-to sources for migraine advice such as the National Headache Foundation and the Mayo Clinic include cold compresses and ice packs among their recommendations to ease migraine symptoms.

In fact cold therapy has been cited as the most common self-administered pain-relief measure used by those suffering from migraine without aura and the second most common measure applied by those experiencing migraine with aura2

However, there are few clinical studies on the use of cold therapy in migraine, and exactly how cold works to ease a migraine remains poorly understood. Further, cold therapy may not be effective for all migraines or in all individuals. 3

One clinical study of 100 migraine sufferers showed that 75 percent found that cold therapy provided them with at least some relief, but of course more studies are needed.

Understanding some of the theories regarding how cold therapy may make migraine sufferers feel more comfortable can enable you to discuss this potential option with your doctor.

How Might Cold Therapy Work on Migraines?

Dr. Keri Peterson, an internist in New York City, says: “Ice helps for multiple reasons — it could be either a vascular contribution, a neurologic contribution, or endocrine.”

On the vascular system (also known as your circulatory system): It is thought that cold constricts the blood vessels (a process known as vasoconstriction), possibly creating decreased downstream blood flow and lessening the pain you may feed. A cold pack may also reduce edema (swelling).

The potential neurologic effects of cold therapy on migraine may be rooted in the fact that the cold inhibits your ability to feel the pain, a process called analgesia. Dr. Peterson elaborates: “In regards to the neurologic system, ice may slow nerve conduction, so you sense pain less readily, because the nerves are more sluggish.”

As for the endocrine system, it is thought that cold may decrease metabolic and enzymatic activity, which reduces local tissue demand for oxygen.

Lastly, it’s important to note that cold therapy could also have a placebo effect on a patient’s ability to subjectively describe their pain.

Deciding if Ice Packs and Cold Therapy Might Work For You

Migraine sufferers often instinctively self-administer supplemental pain-relief strategies, which may or may not be effective. As always, your physician is the best source for advice on treating your migraines — and what works for some sufferers may not work for you. Talk to your doctor about additional ways to ease migraine attacks and about coping with your migraines.

Sinus Headaches

Sinus headaches are a slightly different category than the other three types mentioned in this article. They’re often caused by the common cold or sinusitis, which is an inflammation of the sinuses — air-filled spaces behind your forehead, nasal bones, cheeks and eyes — or possibly other viruses or bacteria. They’re characterized by deep and constant pressure-like pain in the cheekbones, forehead, or bridge of the nose. This pain usually intensifies with sudden head movement or straining and is usually accompanied by symptoms such as fever, runny nose, and clogged ears

Show References

Hide References

1.  Sprouse-Blum AS, Gabriel AK, Brown JP, Yee MH. Randomized controlled trial: targeted neck cooling in the treatment of the migraine patient. Hawaii J of Med & Public Health. 2013;72(7):237-241. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23901394

2.  Ulcer S, Coskun O, Inan LE, Kanatli Y. Cold therapy in migraine patients: open-label, non-controlled, pilot study. eCAM. 2006;3(4):489-493. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1697736/

3.Zanchin G, Maggioni F, Granella F, et al. Self-administered pain-relieving manoeuvres in primary headaches. Cephalagia. 2001;21:718-726. http://cep.sagepub.com/content/21/7/718.abstract

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