The People's Perspective on Medicine

Can You Cure Killer Headaches With Ice Packs?

Did you know that there could be a scientific explanation for why ice packs work to overcome killer headaches? TRP ion channels respond to cold.
Jack russell dog very sick and ill with ice pack or bag on head suffering hangover and headache resting on bed

There was a time decades ago when people treated really bad headaches with ice packs. Those were the days before Advil & Motrin IB (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen). It was before triptan-type migraine medicines like frovatriptan (Frova), rizatriptan (Maxalt), sumatriptan (Imitrex) and zolmitriptan (Zomig). People with killer headaches used what was available and ice seemed to help, for reasons no one understood. One reader shared this story about the value of ice:

Q. I just finished reading your column about a man with a headache and I laughed. I rarely get headaches any more but recently I had a headache for two days. I tried several ways to alleviate it and finally I was desperate enough to put a plastic bag full of ice on my forehead. That was the cure, just like his!

A. We suspect that many severe headaches are triggered by a complex series of neuronal pathways involving transient receptor potential (TRP) channels (ACS Chemical Neuroscience, Aug. 20, 2014).

Such TRP channels are sensitive to changes in temperature. That may explain why ice can be helpful.

Ice Cream for Killer Headaches:

young woman enjoying an ice cream bar

Some people find that inducing an ice cream headache by consuming ice cream or icy beverages (Frappuccinos or slushies) can interrupt a migraine. We believe this probably operates through TRP channels as well.

Stories from readers:

Raindrop in Maryland discovered this quick fix for killer headaches:

“I eat a 6oz cup of sorbet most every night and have random headaches which I realized, coincidentally, disappeared after a couple spoonfuls. A tasty fix!”

Eunice in Idaho came up with a cool trick:

“I rinse fresh grapes and freeze while still wet. One small hand full of frozen grapes slowly chewed is great for headaches.”

Laurie from Pt. St. Lucie, Florida has an amazing killer headache story to share:

“I read your article on “brain freeze” a few days before I woke up with a migraine. I only wake up with a migraines and have never had one during the day. As a result, I don’t have any warning and begin vomiting within 5-10 minutes. Usually I can’t keep any medicine down long enough to take effect.

“My husband quickly got me some ice cream. It’s not as easy as it seems to create brain freeze intentionally! Heavenly hash IC with almonds and chocolate chunks made it difficult, I think. But just holding it in my mouth to the roof and back of the throat WORKED!

“I kept at it for about 5 minutes or so and then took ibuprofen instead of my migraine meds. That is how I stopped this migraine from progressing. I was able to go to work on time, without a headache and not nauseated. Worth a try for anyone! Thanks for the tip!”

See Our Video About Brain Freeze in Action:

Rate this article
5- 8 ratings
About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
Headaches & Migraines

Learn about the causes of headaches. Migraine triggers, and drug & non-drug treatments for migraines and cluster headaches. Coping with menstrual migraines and sex headaches.

Headaches & Migraines
Join over 150,000 Subscribers at The People's Pharmacy

We're empowering you to make wise decisions about your own health, by providing you with essential health information about both medical and alternative treatment options.

Showing 5 comments
Add your comment

I’ve been having migraines for about a year now. They’ve gotten worse with my sensitivity to light after cataract surgery. My workplace recently changed it’s lighting, which has become a trigger for me. More often than not, migraines get intense at night to where I need sunglasses to handle the dimmest of lighting. I have been trying putting ice packs on the back of my neck and am finally getting relief. It usually only takes an hour or so, and the migraine is reduced to a simple headache. Don’t know why it helps, I’m just glad it does.

I HAVE HEADECH MORE THAN FOUR MONTH,I TOOK IBUPROPEN,CAFEGOT,VB2.the headech is on top of head,i reduce blood it reduce,after two month it still distubing me pls i need your help

In my early 20’s I began having really severe headaches that could last for 4 days to a week. I took so much aspirin and then Advil (when it became available) that I would throw up.

After searching for help a chiropractor, who had begun as a massage therapist, said I didn’t need her; I did, in fact, need a highly-skilled massage therapist and she recommended one. In one hour, he could kill one of those headaches and he told me that I had a major muscle in my back that ran through my neck and into my head that was locking up and then causing the intense headache. When he got that muscle to relax, the headache was gone. Once a month massages seemed to keep the pain away.

He suggested I apply ice if something happened between visits and that’s how I learned to tie an ice gel-pack wrapped in a flour sack towel around my neck when a headache started — or I’d ice my entire neck and shoulders by laying down with ice under my shoulders and another pack tied securely to my neck. The point is that some headaches are muscular in origin and too much over-the-counter medication isn’t helpful or even good for a person. I suggest it as a “worth a try” to anyone suffering from bad headaches.

I too have trouble inducing brain freeze intentionally. No trouble at other random times but when I get a migraine and try this method it just doesn’t happen. Any suggestions. Have tried ice cream, frozen bananas. Need something that you can keep on home—not driving to buy a slushy somewhere

For headaches, try Peppermint Essential Oil. Dab on back of neck, around ears, on wrists, on bottom of feet. Essential oils are strong and you may need to add a carrier oil such as coconut oil or almond oil, etc. to make them milder.

* Be nice, and don't over share. View comment policy^