Fending Off Migraine-Triggering Heat: My Secret Weapon

With summer comes heat and more migraine attacks for many of us. Fortunately, there are some tricks that make heat a little easier to cope with than other weather triggers. In addition to using the suggestions Sarah shared in Five Tips for Preventing Summer-Season Migraines, I have a new secret weapon: a cooling vest.

Cooling vests are exactly what the name sounds like -- vests that help keep you cool. People with MS wear them to keep heat from exacerbating their symptoms and they're also popular among people who work or exercise in hot environments. A cooling vest isn't the most attractive garment you'll ever wear, but it may be the most soothing (and some styles can be worn under clothing or have a less conspicuous design).

Available in a wide range of styles, these vests use a variety of cooling mechanisms and can cost anywhere from $25 to more than $3,000. Sorting through all the factors can be overwhelming, so I've provided a brief summary below. For a detailed comparison and recommendations on which vest best fits your needs, ActiveMSers’ Gear Guide: Cooling Vests & Apparel is the definitive resource.

The first thing you need to know is that cooling vests use either an active or passive cooling mechanism. Active technology uses a power source, like a battery, for continuous cooling. They can maintain a cooling temperature all day long. Active vests start at $350 and can cost more than $3,000.

Passive vests use ice packs or evaporation to keep you cool and cost between $30 and $300. The cooling effect is limited to between 30 minutes and about four hours, depending on the cooling mechanism and the conditions in which you use it.I assume most of you will want to start with a less expensive vest, so here's a summar of the different passive vest mechanisms.

  • Ice Packs ($55-$300): These are like the ice packs you put in your lunch bag. You freeze the packs in the freezer, then put them in the pockets inside the vest. They provide maximum cooling and stay cold for a long time, but some people find them to be too cold. You must fully refreeze ice packs to recharge them. These are the heaviest of the passive vest types and can become wet due to condensation.
  • Phase Change Packs ($150-$300): These look like ice packs, but they solidify between 55 and 65 degrees and remain at that temperature for up to four hours. They are cool but not too cold and solidify in an hour in your freezer or 20 minutes in ice water. They are heavier than evaporative cooling vests, but not as heavy as most ice pack vests. (This is the kind I chose. I’ll explain why below.)
  • Evaporative ($25-$80): These work much like evaporative coolers and, like evaporative coolers, are ineffective in humid climates. To activate, soak the vest in water for two to 20 minutes, depending on the vest, to hydrate the cooling crystals. They do not provide as much cooling as other vest types, but are lightweight and relatively inexpensive. Manufacturers say they provide cooling for up to four hours (I'm skeptical).
  • Combination Ice Pack & Evaporative ($75-$200): These hybrid vests get colder than evaporative vests, but the cooling effect lasts only one to two hours. The entire vest must be frozen, which can be impractical in many households. Because they are lightweight, ActiveMSers recommend this type for sports.

My Choice: Because I live in Phoenix, where it is notoriously hot and is also humid in July and August, an evaporative vest was unlikely to be effective and I needed more than the hour of cooling a combination vest would provide. I was going to buy a $55 ice pack vest from Amazon, but read reviews that it was too big for petite people, which I am (for maximum cooling, vests should fit close to the body). I was also concerned an ice pack vest might make me too cold in over-air conditioned stores and wasn't keen on my clothes getting wet from condensation.

Many hours of research later, I chose a Glacier Tek-brand RPCM Sports Cooling Vest with a front zipper for $199. I love it. It’s cool without being cold and it works for at least three hours at a time. It looks like a life vest, so I’m usually too vain to wear it indoors while running errands. I keep a soft-sided ice chest in my car and store the vest inside when I go in stores, which also keeps the vest cooler longer than if I wore it continuously. I put it back on as soon as I return to the car and it works perfectly to keep me cool while the air conditioner catches up.

Even with 100+ degree days looming, I’m less anxious about summer in Phoenix than I have been since moving back. As soon as I finish writing this, I’m putting my vest packs in the freezer. The cooling vest made last summer's heat and humidity so much more bearable. I’m looking forward to experiencing that tremendous relief again this year.

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