Occasional headaches are something most people deal with. But if you have chronic headaches or migraines, you know how debilitating they can be.

Prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs can help, but it’s frustrating to take a pill every time your head hurts. The good news is there are several natural approaches you can try that help manage the pain and discomfort of a pounding headache.

One strategy that’s often recommended for headache and migraine pain is ice packs. Applying a cold compress or ice pack to your head or neck is believed to have a numbing effect, which may dull the sensation of pain.

Is ice an effective remedy for headaches or migraines?

Using ice as a remedy for headaches and migraines isn’t new. In fact, cold therapy for headaches goes back as many as 150 years. “Ice is often the ‘go-to’ to treat pain and inflammation, so it makes logical sense to be applied when your head hurts,” explains Dr. Tania Elliott, chief medical officer at EHE. But how does ice work on headaches or migraines?

Elliott says the cold can constrict blood vessels and help reduce the neurotransmission of pain to the brain. Instead of registering pain, it registers “oh, that’s cold.”

A 2013 study found that applying a frozen neck wrap at the onset of a migraine significantly reduced pain in participants with migraine headaches.

Researchers believed that the cooling pack cooled the blood flowing to the carotid artery in the neck. This helped to reduce the inflammation in the brain, which helped improve the pain felt by migraines.

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

Since ice packs are considered a home remedy, there are a variety of ways to use this treatment. As always, if you have questions or concerns about treating your headache at home, ask your doctor before trying any of these strategies.

Elliott says the best way to use cold therapy for a headache or a migraine is to apply the ice pack for 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Where you apply the ice pack also makes a difference in how quickly you can experience relief. The 2013 study specifically recommends applying the ice in the form of a neck wrap, which can help reduce the pain and discomfort from headaches and migraines.

Shop for neck wrap ice packs

Dr. Alex Tauberg, a certified sports chiropractor in Pittsburgh, recommends putting the ice either over the pain or at the base of your skull. Keep the ice on for 20 minutes and then take it off for an hour. You can alternate the ice on and off until the pain subsides. Tauberg says when you put the ice pack on you should experience four different feelings in this particular order:

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

Once you experience numbness, you should remove the ice. Keeping the ice pack on to long can damage your skin. If the burning is too intense, remove the ice. Some skin is more sensitive to cold.

The bottom line

Finding a home remedy to help you treat the symptoms of a headache or a migraine can mean the difference between experiencing manageable and severe pain. Using an ice pack is an inexpensive and relatively safe way to reduce the discomfort and pain from a headache.

If over-the-counter treatments and home remedies don’t provide you any relief from the symptoms of a headache or a migraine, it might be best to talk with your doctor about additional ways to treat the symptoms.

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