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Ice Pack vs. Heating Pad for Headache Relief

In October, we asked fans of NHF on Facebook if the application of heat relieves their migraine or headache. Many of you did say that heat was helpful:

Jessica C.: "My mom uses a heating pad for her migraines. She actually uses a really hot washcloth and puts it on her head and forehead and puts the heating pad over it...the warm moist heat helps her sometimes."

Gary R.: "Heat helps mine. I alternate a hot corn bag between my head and my neck."

Greg S.: "I use rice packs over the eyes heated up. The moist heat then penetrates and gives me comfort."

Lynn C.: "Heat has helped, but moist heat...sometimes I would run a tub full of hot water and lay in it and just let my head float. That seemed to relax it and relieve some of the pain sometimes."

But several of you stated just the opposite:

Morgan L.: “Cold is better for migraines; it calms the blood vessels and reduces inflammation. Plus it just feels better (and I find it helps with the nausea too).

Kristen W.: “Heat makes mine worse…give me a gel ice pack please.“

Becky S.: “No, ice works better…I don’t want to tell you how many ice packs I have in the freezer!"

Jennifer A.: “If I put ice on a low to medium severity headache, it will usually prevent it from becoming a full-blown migraine and may reduce the headache to zero…I carry ice with me everywhere, especially on errands and short trips.”

So Which Should You Use?

As with many headache topics, the answer is a little fuzzy. It likely depends on the type of headache you have and your body’s response. Heat may help. Cold may help. Both may help. Consider the facts.

According to a 1986 study conducted by Seymour Diamond, MD (founder of the National Headache Foundation) and NHF board member Frederick G. Freitag, DO, 71 percent of patients who used a frozen gel pack during an attack found it an effective pain reliever and about half reported that it immediately decreased pain.1 A 2006 study from Oxford University Press seemed to confirm this effect.2

In 1988, a study published in the journal Headache explored use of a device that used both cooling and warming to decrease head pain. Of the 28 participants, 22 found a reduction in the severity of the headache.3

Testing these at-home therapies is relatively easy and economical. Ice packs are commercially available—or you could just grab a frozen bag of veggies from the freezer or dunk a washcloth in cold water and apply it to the site of pain. Hot compresses and heating pads are also commercially available—though some may find it just as helpful to sit in a warm bath.

So which is it for you? Heat or ice for headache relief? Have you found specific products or home remedies to be helpful?



  1. PubMed.
  2. PubMed Central.
  3. Wiley.
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