Can Ice Packs Soothe a Headache?

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There’s never a good time for a headache. It can be frustrating and inconvenient when they pop up. Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are usually able to manage the pain, but one natural way to treat it is with ice packs. Cold therapy (clinically referred to as cryotherapy) can help with many kinds of headaches, including migraines and other primary headache disorders.

In this article, you’ll learn how to use ice packs, how they relieve pain, and what you can do to prevent headaches.

a man sitting back with an ice pack on his forehead

vitapix / Getty Images

The Evidence for Cold Therapy

Applying ice packs and cooling your head to take on headache pain is a tried-and-true method, and evidence for it is robust. Studies have shown that it helps relieve migraines (which are headaches that are often recurrent, more severe, and lead to other symptoms such as nausea) and tension headaches (which are more common and milder), among other types. Some key findings include:

  • Efficacy for migraine: A 2015 study of 20 migraine sufferers found cryotherapy to completely resolve pain in eight participants (40%), with an additional 10 (50%) seeing partial relief. Significant reductions in symptom severity were seen in 87% of those studied 24 hours after application.
  • Targeted neck cooling: A 2013 study focused on targeted neck cooling for migraines of the carotid arteries, major blood vessels at the front of the neck. They found that icing at the onset of the headaches significantly reduced the intensity of pain after 30 minutes, making this a viable and effective option.
  • Managing tension headache: Researchers have also looked at cold therapy for tension headaches. A 2019 study of 14 women with tension headaches found that cooling the neck and head to reduce the intensity and character of attacks helped manage symptoms. Further, those using this approach don’t use as many pain-managing, analgesic (pain-relieving) medications.      

How Cold Therapy Stops Pain

In response to cold, your blood vessels become narrower, affecting circulation to nerves associated with pain. Cold therapy slows nerve transmission of pain messaging, while also reducing the local inflammation (swelling) that is often at the root of the problem. Basically, this therapy reduces sensations of pain by replacing them with those of cold.   

How to Use an Ice Pack

Cold therapy can easily be done at home using household materials, though there are also many reusable cold packs available in stores. The three primary means of applying the cold to your head are:

  • Ice towel: Soak a towel in cold water, then wring it out until it's damp. Fold it and put it in a plastic bag, and then put it into your freezer for about 15 minutes. Make sure to take the towel out of the bag before using it.
  • Ice packs: Fill a plastic bag (or store-bought cold pack) with about a half pound of ice and add a little water before sealing. Wrap the pack in a wet towel before using.
  • Cold packs: Along with the many available options in stores, you can use a bag of frozen peas or corn as a cold pack. You can also make a homemade cold pack by freezing 3 cups of water and 1 cup of rubbing alcohol. Use a resealable plastic bag, remove excess air, and let it freeze into slush. This type can be refrozen and reused once it melts.

Generally, the idea is to cool the forehead and temples or neck for sessions of 15 to 20 minutes at a time. This can be repeated multiple times a day and as needed if symptoms persist.

Skin Safety

When icing, don’t let ice or cold packs directly touch the skin. Keep a cloth between them and your head or neck.

Related: How to Avoid Ice Burn When Treating an Injury

Headache Prevention Tips

Ice packs and cold therapy can be helpful in reducing headaches after they’ve set in, but there’s also a lot you can do to prevent headaches. Much depends on the specific nature of your issues—what treats tension headaches, for instance, may not work for migraines—but the key is to find what works for you.

Here are some tips for stopping headaches from coming on:

  • Get good sleep: Make sure you are sleeping enough hours (seven to eight hours for adults and nine or more for children) and are going to bed and waking up at consistent times. Make your bed a screen-free zone, and don’t do work there.
  • Get exercise: Staying physically active has many health benefits and has been shown to help with headache disorders like migraine. Aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of light-to-moderate activity a week (about 30 minutes a day, five days a week).
  • Stay hydrated: Dehydration is a common cause of headaches, so make sure you are drinking enough water. About a half gallon a day is recommended, and you’ll need more if you engage in physical activity.
  • Steer clear of triggers: Especially for migraines, triggers like stress, anxiety, certain foods and drinks, flashing lights, and smells can set off headaches. Tracking and avoiding these triggers can prevent onset.
  • Relaxation methods: Tension and stress set off both tension headaches and migraines. Activities focused on stretching, such as yoga or tai-chi, can help manage these issues, as can other approaches like biofeedback therapy (a mind-body technique of controlling processes in the body that are typically involuntary), gardening, or even taking a bath or walk in your neighborhood.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques involve deep breathing and guided meditation, easing the stress and tension that can cause headaches. They help keep you focused on the present moment, helping to create a calm mental state.

Watch for Medications

OTC and prescribed painkillers and antihistamines, when used too often, can cause medication overuse headaches (MOH), also called rebound headaches. This can cause nearly daily headaches that come on as your medications wear off.

If you’re taking drugs like Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) more than three times a week for pain, talk to your doctor.

Summary

Using ice packs on the temple and neck is an effective way to manage and ease headaches. Cold therapy has been shown effective against many kinds of headaches, especially migraines and tension headaches.

Doctors recommend you apply the ice for 15 minutes at a time, and you can repeat the therapy multiple times a day. Make sure that a cloth or towel separates your skin from the ice or cold pack during application.

Headache prevention entails getting adequate sleep, exercising, staying hydrated, avoiding triggers, and promoting relaxation, among other strategies.

A Word From Verywell

When it comes to headache management, the more means for relief you have at your disposal, the better off you’ll be. Applying ice packs, along with other prevention strategies and therapies, can help get you pain free and back on track. If you suffer from severe or frequent headaches, be sure to talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is heat or ice better when treating a headache?

    Both heat and icing can help headaches, and individual preferences vary. In general, though, people with migraine prefer cold therapy, while tension headache sufferers prefer heating pads. As with many aspects of headache management, you’ll have to see what works best for you.

  • How can you get rid of a headache fast?

    The proper course of treatment depends on the type of headache that has set on. OTC analgesics like Tylenol and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil or Motrin are frequently recommended first. Tougher headache cases, such as migraines, may require other types of drugs, including triptans, calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) inhibitors, or antiemetic (antinausea) drugs.

  • What are the best home remedies for headaches?

    Besides medications, there are a number of things to do to on headaches at home:

    • Drinking water
    • Applying heating pads or ice packs to the head
    • Finding a dark, quiet place to rest
    • Taking a nap
    • Having caffeine (in some cases)
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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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