Cold Therapy for Migraine

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: April 2023

Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is often used for different types of aches and pains. It is one of the most common self-care treatments for people with migraine. Cold therapy for migraine involves applying cold packs or caps to the head or neck. The treatment of migraine with cold therapy has been used for more than 150 years.1

How does migraine cold therapy work?

While the exact way it works on migraine is not clear, cold therapy is known to constrict blood vessels (vasoconstriction) and reduce inflammation. Cold therapy is also known to have a pain-relieving effect on the nervous system.1

There are few studies on cold therapy and migraine. One small study published in 2006 evaluated the use of a cold gel cap in 26 people with migraine. The gel cap was kept in the freezer and used for 2 migraine attacks by each participant. After using the cold gel cap for 25 minutes, severity of migraine was reduced in 50 percent of the participants in their first migraine attack. Three people had a complete response. This means their migraine was relieved.2

In the second migraine attack, 57.6 percent of the participants had a reduction in the severity of their migraine. Two people had a complete response. However, the study did not have a control group (a group that receives no treatment or a placebo), so the findings are limited.2

Another study from 2013 evaluated the use of neck wraps in 55 people with migraine. The participants were randomly assigned to use a cold neck wrap or a room-temperature neck wrap (the control group).1

Those who used the cold neck wrap had a large decrease in the severity of their migraine attack at 30 minutes, compared to a large increase in severity at 30 minutes for the control group. Plus, 77 percent of the people who used the cold wrap said it helped them. The use of rescue medicines was much lower (57.6 percent compared to 87.6 percent) in the cold wrap group.1

Examples of products for migraine cold therapy

There are many different products that people may use for migraine cold therapy, including:1

  • Ice bag
  • Cold pack
  • Fluids used on the skin, like ethyl chloride, that cool by evaporation
  • Cooling pads
  • Gel caps for the head
  • Cold compression wraps
  • Frozen neck wraps
  • Frozen gel packs inserted into headbands

What are the possible side effects?

Because cold therapy doesn’t involve ingesting any medicines or supplements, there are few side effects from using this method of treatment. People who have cold intolerance or sensitivity to cold may not be able to use cold therapy.1,2

These are not all the possible side effects of cold therapy. Talk to your doctor about what to expect when using cold therapy. You also should call your doctor if you have any changes that concern you when using cold therapy.

Other things to know

Ice packs should not be applied to bare skin constantly. Using a cloth covering can help prevent areas from damage like frostbite.1,2

As always, the best source for advice on treating migraine is your own migraine specialist. Before beginning treatment for migraine, tell your doctor about all your health conditions and any other drugs, vitamins, or supplements you take. This includes over-the-counter drugs.

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