Cold Therapy

Cold therapy for migraine: an introduction

Cold therapy, also known as cryotherapy, is often used for different types of aches and pains and is one of the most common self-care treatments by people with migraine. Cold therapy for migraine involves application of cold packs or caps to the head or neck. The treatment of migraine with cold therapy has been used for over 150 years. While the exact way it works on migraine isn’t clear, cold therapy is known to constrict blood vessels (vasoconstriction) and reduce inflammation. Cold therapy is also known to have an analgesic (pain relieving) effect on the nervous system.1

Different products for cold therapy

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

Studies on cold therapy and migraine

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 study did not have a control group – a group that receives no treatment or a placebo – so the findings cannot be interpreted broadly.) The gel cap was kept in the freezer and used for two migraine attacks by each participant. After using the cold gel cap for 25 minutes, severity of migraine was reduced in 50% of the patients in their first migraine attack and three patients had a complete response (their migraine was relieved). In the second migraine attack, 57.6% of the patients had a reduction in the severity of their migraine with two patients having a complete response.2

Another study from 2013 evaluated the use of neck wraps in 55 patients with migraine. The participants were randomly assigned to use a cold neck wrap or a room-temperature neck wrap (the control group). Those who used the cold neck wrap had a significant decrease in the severity of their migraine attack at 30 minutes, compared to a significant increase in severity at 30 minutes for the control group. In addition, 77% of the patients who used the cold wrap said the cold wrap helped them, and the use of rescue medications was significantly lower (57.6% compared to 87.6%) in the cold wrap group.1

Possible side effects of cold therapy

Because cold therapy doesn’t involve ingesting any medications 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.

Who should not use cold therapy for migraine

Before starting any type of therapy, you should consult your doctor, particularly if you are pregnant, nursing, have any circulatory problems, diabetes or skin issues.

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

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As always, the best source for advice on treating migraine is your own migraine specialist. These descriptions of natural remedies are provided only for informational purposes. You should begin no treatment regimen, medication or supplement without first checking with your physician.

Written by: Emily Downward | Last review date: May 2018
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