Can Cold Packs Treat Headaches?

Can Cold Packs Treat Headaches?

Headaches and migraines are things almost everyone deals with at some point, but if you have chronic migraines or headaches, you know how debilitating they can be. They interfere in your life in many ways - it's hard to make plans and even harder to carry them out!

Taking a pill to manage the pain and discomfort of headaches can be a bit frustrating, especially when you have to take one every time you have a headache. Luckily, several natural approaches help with migraine treatments that, in most cases, will lessen or eliminate any headache after a few days or weeks of continued use.

One strategy often recommended for those suffering from headaches and migraines is to apply a cold compress or a cold pack to the area of your head or neck, causing pain. It's believed that applying these types of compresses has a numbing effect on the brain, which may suppress or dull any sensation of discomfort in the head.

Is cold therapy an effective remedy for headaches or migraines?

As most people know, a cold therapy pack is a great way to relieve inflammation in the body as it numbs pain receptors - this occurs when applying a cold pack to a migraine. We tend to do it naturally whenever we sprain our ankle or burn our fingers, but did you know cold therapy can also be used on migraines? Cold pack is notorious for their ability to numb the pain and relieve pressure from swelling, thanks to their numbing properties. When applied directly to the head, cold therapy helps instantly reduce inflammation and relieve headache or migraine since, much like a sprained ankle or a burnt finger, your head is also sore!

According to the International Association for the Study of Pain, cold can constrict blood vessels, which reduces pain sent to the brain. So, whereas normally, our body would be registering 'ouch,' it will instead register a sense of coldness.

When scientists studied patients with chronic joint pain who were treated with cooling creams or used cold packs on their arthritic hands and feet, they experienced less discomfort than when they didn't use cold treatment to relieve their pain. For example, patients having undergone knee surgery have been shown to have significant relief from using cold packs compared to painkillers like ibuprofen, which don't directly address the problem and do not prevent re-inflaming swelling after activity.

A 2013 study showed that participants with migraines who applied a cold neck wrap at the onset of a headache experienced lessened pain than those who did not have access to such things.

A group of researchers discovered that when they administered cooling packs to individuals with migraine headaches, they experienced less pain in the following days. They tracked the carotid artery and discovered the neck's blood flow cooled. The body then sent warmer-than-usual blood to the brain. It helped to reduce inflammation which in turn relieved their migraines.

The Evidence for Cold Therapy

The application of ice packs and cooling of the head to alleviate headache pain is a well-established and scientifically supported method. Research has demonstrated its effectiveness in relieving various headaches, including migraines (recurrent, severe pain and often accompanied by nausea) and tension headaches (milder and more common). Significant findings underscore the efficacy of this approach.

  • Efficacy for migraine: According to a study conducted in 2015, cryotherapy effectively managed migraines. The study involved 20 participants with migraine, and it was observed that eight participants (40%) experienced complete pain relief, while 10 participants (50%) reported partial relief. Additionally, 87% of the participants experienced a significant reduction in symptom severity 24 hours after the application of cryotherapy. These findings suggest that cryotherapy could be a beneficial treatment option for individuals suffering from migraines.
  • Targeted neck cooling: According to a study conducted in 2013, targeted neck cooling was effective for migraines affecting the carotid arteries and major blood vessels in the neck. The study concluded that applying ice at the onset of a migraine significantly reduced pain intensity after 30 minutes, making it a viable option for treatment.
  • Managing tension headaches: In recent studies, cold therapy has been explored as a potential treatment for tension headaches. In a 2019 study involving 14 female participants with tension headaches, it was observed that cooling the neck and head effectively reduced the intensity and character of attacks, thereby providing relief from symptoms. Additionally, the use of this approach resulted in reduced reliance on pain-relieving medications.

What’s the best way to use a cold pack to treat a headache or a migraine?

Since cold packs tend to be sold over the counter at most drug stores, you aren't going to find that there's only one way to use this remedy. The more creative you are in applying this strategy, the more effective your outcome will likely be when targeting how best to relieve a headache using this home remedy initiative. If you have questions or concerns about treating headaches naturally, talk with a doctor before trying these strategies on your own.

Elliott says the best way to treat a headache or migraine with cold therapy is by applying it for 15 - 20 minutes. However, further details revealed in the 2013 study show that where you place the cold pack can also produce significant results. Specifically, he's referring to the neck wrap, which can relieve headaches and migraines.

Dr. Alex Tauberg, a certified chiropractor in Pittsburgh, suggests putting a cold pack over the source of your pain or at the base of your skull. Keep the pack on for 20 minutes, then take it off for an hour. You can alternate between applying and not applying the cold pack until you feel relief. When putting the cold pack on, there are four distinct feelings that you should experience in this order:

  1. cold
  2. burning
  3. aching
  4. numbness

When you experience numbness, you should remove the cold pack. For long-term relief, you must follow our recommendations; if cold is effective in providing immediate pain relief and minimizing inflammation, over-application can lead to skin damage by causing frostbite.

Tips to prevent headaches

Cold therapy and ice treatment can effectively alleviate headaches after they have already started. However, there are several measures you can take to prevent headaches from occurring in the first place. Here are some valuable tips to help you prevent headaches:

Sleep well: It is recommended that individuals prioritize obtaining an appropriate amount of sleep, with adults aiming for seven to eight hours and children seeking nine hours or more. Establishing consistent sleeping and waking times is also advised.

Exercise: Regular physical activity offers numerous health benefits and has been demonstrated to alleviate headache disorders such as migraines. It is recommended to aim for at least 150 minutes of light to moderate activity per week, which amounts to approximately 30 minutes per day, five days per week.

Stay hydrated: Proper hydration is essential in preventing headaches. Consuming approximately half a gallon of water daily is recommended, and more if engaging in physical activity.

Avoid triggers: Migraines can be triggered by various factors such as stress, anxiety, certain foods and drinks, flashing lights, and smells. Therefore, it is essential to monitor and avoid these triggers to prevent the onset of migraines.

Relaxation Methods: Tension and stress can trigger headaches. To mitigate these issues, incorporating practices such as yoga or tai chi may be beneficial in managing symptoms and exploring other approaches such as cold therapy.

Mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques encompass practices such as deep breathing and guided meditation, which are designed to combat stress and promote a sense of tranquility. These techniques assist in developing a heightened awareness of the present moment, facilitating a sense of inner peace.

The bottom line

If you are unlucky to develop migraines, try home remedies. Using a cold pack is just one way a person can help relieve their pain and experience a headache that's not as painful or debilitating. While your doctor may recommend some prescription medications, using a cold pack is a relatively inexpensive and usually fairly safe way of reducing the discomfort (but I would never recommend doing this when you have any skin infection). We know how often people suffer from migraine headaches, so why not try something like this out if your doctor does not have all the answers?

When over-the-counter medications and home remedies fail to relieve the symptoms of a migraine or a headache, it might be best to talk with your doctor about additional and sometimes more extreme ways of treating your pain.

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