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How to Stop a Migraine by Eating Ice Cream

Eating ice cream or drinking ice water quickly as soon as headache symptoms start can be a good way to stop your migraine headache.

Migraine headaches cause a lot of misery. Although there are medications such as almotriptan (Axert), frovatriptan (Frova), rizatriptan (Maxalt), sumatriptan (Imitrex) or zolmitriptan (Zomig) that can be used to stop a migraine if they are used promptly at the onset of symptoms, they are expensive. There are also medicines that are prescribed to prevent migraines for people who suffer frequently. But is there a simple way to stop a migraine as soon as it starts?

Stop a Migraine with Ice Cream:

Q. I get nauseating, throbbing migraines that make it excruciating to bend over, cough or do much of anything. If I quickly eat one bowl of ice cream the pain is gone. This works faster than taking a pill. In my experience this remedy that I read about on your website is definitely worth the try!

A. You are not the first person to report that eating ice cream quickly can sometimes stop a migraine headache.

One reader wrote:

“I have been doing this with milkshakes for years. Coffee/mocha is my favorite.”

Research has shown that when something cold (ice cream, a popsicle, Slushie® or Frappucino®) touches the roof of the mouth it can induce “brain freeze.” You can read what we wrote about that research here. This induces rapid blood vessel constriction and then dilation, which may explain why something cold can sometimes stop a migraine before it takes hold.

Who Gets Brain Freeze?

Not everyone who suffers from migraine headaches also experiences ice-induced headaches, but brain freeze does appear to be more common among migraine sufferers (48%) than among people without headaches (17%) (Cephalalgia, Nov., 2012). A recent study showed that ice water produced a more intense cold-induced headache than plain ice cubes (Cephalalgia, online May 19, 2016).

Ice Cream Worked for Nitroglycerin Headaches:

Migraines might not be the only type of headache that respond well to ice cream. One reader wrote about his experience years ago with nitroglycerin headaches.

Q. When I worked for the Navy many years ago, everyone who worked at the nitroglycerin (NG) plant would develop a headache every day. They universally said that eating ice cream on arriving home immediately took the headache away. They called it the solution to the NG headache.

A. Cardiologists frequently prescribe nitroglycerin to heart patients who suffer from chest pain (angina). The medication helps blood dilate to improve circulation. Doing so, however, also causes headaches. Hence the NG headaches you experienced working in a nitroglycerin plant.

We have heard from many migraine patients that inducing “brain freeze” with ice cream or a Slushie often stops an early headache. Scientists have found that cold changes the pattern of blood flow in the brain. This might help explain the ice cream headache and may also be the reason brain freeze can stop a migraine.

Ice Cream Stopped Migraine Cold:

Q. I absolutely get relief from my migraines with ice cream. Starbucks Frappuccinos are just as good or better. Any combination of cold and carbohydrates is great. Add caffeine and protein (the milk in ice cream) and you’ve got a real winner. It can actually cure my migraine sometimes if I catch it early enough.

A. Thank you for the testimonial. It is good to have a reliable remedy to try, since standard medicines for migraine, such as sumatriptan (Imitrex), are pricey.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream Does the Trick:

Q. I know when my burning headaches go all day it’s because the weather has gone from too hot to too cold at the snap of my fingers. Or rain is on the way within the next day or two. But after popping pain pills all day with no relief, why does eating spoonfuls of chocolate peanut butter ice cream take the pain right away?

A. We have no idea why chocolate peanut butter ice cream helps your headaches, but we can’t think of a tastier treatment.

Some people actually develop something called ice-cream headaches if they eat very cold food too fast. Also known as brain freeze, doctors call this pain sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. It means that nerves in the roof of the mouth have been overwhelmed by the cold.

Others Who Found Ice Cream Helped Against Migraines:

A number of other readers have reported that eating ice cream can help stop a migraine.

Anna wrote:

“About two months ago I was at work and on my third day of a migraine headache. My coworker and I were eating lunch and even though I usually avoid sweets like ice cream during a migraine, I was craving something cold, so I grabbed some ice cream. After several bites, I developed a terrible brain freeze headache, but when the brain freeze left, so did my migraine!

“My migraines are usually the most intense and unbearable during the first day, during which I do not feel like eating or drinking anything due to nausea, so I don’t know yet if it works when the headache is that intense. I drank a frappe the other day when I felt a headache was coming on and it took care of it!”

Jordan said:

“Ever since I was 7, I’ve suffered painful migraines. Being young, I didn’t want to take medicines to help these. I would suffer in school and spend at least three days a week lying in a sick room, or putting my head on my desk. Every sound and glimpse of light made me want to cry.

“Medical tests and many doctors/specialist could not find a cure for me with a better alternative than suffering through school. It eventually became apparent to my parents and I that when I ate DQ, my episode disappeared. I happen to only eat chocolate ice cream; vanilla is not tasteful for me.

“To this day, I still get episodes 3+ times a week. I agree this varies person to person. I keep Excedrin with me; however, I have more luck with ice cream. Quick, simple, and painless.”

HF confessed:

“For years I have used a pint of lemon sorbet as my emergency migraine treatment. I suffer from a very high rate of migraines (at least ten days out of the month) and keep a supply of Imitrex on hand at all times. Before I had Imitrex I would resort to eating lemon sorbet very quickly until I got brain freeze and with a little luck the migraine would pass. I don’t know how I came across this cure, I suspect it was one of the food cravings that I get with migraines.”

Ice Cream or Ice Water?

If you want to avoid the extra calories from eating ice cream to stop your migraine, you might experiment with ice water instead. We usually think of ice water as having no side effects, though there is at least one case report in the medical literature of a young man who developed atrial fibrillation (A-fib) at the same time as a cold-induced headache (American Journal of Case Reports, Jan. 13, 2016).

Learn More:

We discuss these medications as well as non-drug treatments for migraines, menstrual headaches and sex headaches in our Guide to Headaches & Migraines. There is also information on migraine headache treatment in our new book, Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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