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Will Ice Stop a Killer Headache?

Can wrapping the head in ice put a halt to severe head pain? One reader says yes; others try causing brain freeze by drinking ice water.

What do you do for a nasty headache? If you suddenly develop a severe headache unlike anything you’ve experienced before, you should get medical attention right away. It might be nothing more than your first migraine (though that is bad enough). On the other hand, it could be something more serious, such as a stroke or a subarachnoid hemorrhage (bleeding into the brain). Once such deadly causes are ruled out, you will still be left with the problem of how to ease the pain. Could ice help?

Severe Sporadic Headaches That Respond to Ice:

Q. My husband gets headaches that are sporadic but severe enough to make him vomit. When they happen and I ask what I can do for him, he has suggested I shoot him.

We found that wrapping his head in ice seems to be the only thing that helps. (He refuses to see a doctor.)

What Kind of Headache Is It?

A. Your husband really needs to see a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis. If he is suffering from migraines, he might benefit from a variety of treatments. Not all the treatment options require a prescription. Coenzyme Q10 and magnesium are available over the counter, and so are herbs such as butterbur and feverfew. While none of these will stop a migraine in progress, all can be used to prevent headaches (Silberstein, Continuum, Aug. 2015).

Prescription Medicines for Migraine:

In the realm of prescription medicines for migraines, a doctor could prescribe a drug such as sumatriptan that often reverses severe headaches promptly. Many migraine sufferers find such medications extremely helpful.

Cluster Headaches:

If your husband is suffering from cluster headaches, breathing oxygen has been shown to be helpful (Robbins et al, Headache, July 2016). Such headaches are extremely debilitating, so finding relief makes a tremendous difference. Sumatriptan or zolmitriptan also work for cluster headaches.

We were fascinated by your use of ice to wrap his head. Previously, we have heard from many migraine sufferers that inducing “brain freeze” by drinking ice water can stop a migraine quickly. We’ve never before heard of wrapping the head in ice to treat a migraine or other severe headache. You may find our Guide to Headaches and Migraines useful for your husband.

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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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