Cold Therapy for Migraine and Tension Headaches

When I get a migraine - I shut out the world. It's my first line of defense.

If I'm home the lights go out - darkness is my friend.

If I'm at work - the earplugs go in and the sunglasses come out.

Then I wait. And hope. And pray that this time it won't last long. That this time the pain I feel creeping up my neck won't become a vice grip on my temples.

Of course, hope and prayer don’t work to relieve the pain. There is prescription medication in the medicine cabinet but it’s the last resort. And honestly, those side effects can be tough to deal with. I went on the hunt for non-prescription medicine options and…after some trial and error…I found many alternative treatments and have used a few.

One alternative treatment I've tried - and works more often than not - is Cold Therapy, also known as cryotherapy. This is as simple as it sounds - just placing something cold over an area of pain. You've probably done this before with a sprained ankle or other painful condition.

Some facts you might find interesting:

Cold therapy for migraine relief was first documented as early as 1849.

James Arnott (1797–1883), English physician and pioneer of cryotherapy wrote a manuscript on cold therapy in which he used a mixture of salt and ice on patients to treat headache.

Since then it's been the number one self-care treatment used for migraine without aura and the second most common for migraine with aura.

The National Headache Foundation and the Mayo Clinic include cold compresses and ice packs among their recommendations to ease Migraine symptoms.

There are quite a few studies demonstrating the effectiveness of cold therapy as a migraine treatment. For instance, one study from 1989 looked at neck cooling as a treatment for migraine. In this study, 45 patients with migraine evaluated the effectiveness of a cold wrap for headache relief. The results – 65% found the cold therapy to be effective in reducing their migraine symptoms.

Why does it work? It's thought that cold constricts the blood vessels and reduces inflammation.

Dr. Keri Peterson who specializes in Internal Medicine - and is also a migraine sufferer herself - says, “Ice helps for multiple reasons — it could be either a vascular contribution, a neurologic contribution, or endocrine. Place the ice either on the scalp or neck – whatever brings relief."

According to Dr. Peterson “...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. In regards to the neurologic system, ice may slow nerve conduction, so you sense pain less readily, because the nerves are more sluggish.”

This all sounds great but how can I use cold therapy for my migraine?

Cold therapy is fairly straightforward. It can be as simple as the old-fashioned ice pack that you place on your head or neck. I've used the ice pack - and in a pinch have grabbed a bag of frozen vegetables from the freezer. Peas are the best in my opinion.

I also like cold therapy products made specifically for headache, like the MigraFreeze cold therapy hat. At the first sign of a migraine coming on, I take the hat out of the freezer and put it on. In about 10 minutes my migraine has been reduced to a manageable pain level. Sometimes it even goes away completely.

The hat gives me freedom of movement that an ice pack doesn't. It has removable gel packs. This means I can take out the gel packs and safely wash the hat.

MigraFreeze Hat

It's such a relief knowing there are alternatives to prescription medicine to treat my migraines.

While I still haven't found any one thing that works EVERY time, cold therapy works for me a lot of the time and is an important part of my migraine toolbox.

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