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A Warm or Cold Compress for Headaches

author image Lori Newell
I hold a Master's degree in exercise physiology/health promotion. I am a certified fitness specialist through the American College of Spots Medicine and an IYT certified yoga teacher. I have over 25 years experience teaching classes to both general public and those with chronic illness. The above allows me to write directly to the reader based on personal experiences.
A Warm or Cold Compress for Headaches
Cold and hot compresses can be used to calm headaches. Photo Credit office headache image by John Keith from Fotolia.com

If you suffer with occasional or chronic headaches, you may have tried various techniques to relieve the pain. One option is to use a compress, which can be helpful when your headache comes on quickly, or your medication is not working well. Understanding the cause of your headaches and how hot and cold therapy works will help you decide if it is better to use a warm or cold compress.


There are many different types of headaches that can affect anyone at any age, according to the National Headache Foundation. They can be caused by tension, stress or depression. They can be triggered by certain smells, loud sounds, changes in temperature or certain foods. An imbalance in hormone levels, high blood pressure, damage to the body from smoking, excessive alcohol consumption or the medications you are taking can also trigger a headache. Pinpointing your specific triggers will help you to form a plan to manage your pain.

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Abnormal signals between your brain, blood vessels and nerves may be what causes headaches. According to the Cleveland Clinic, for reasons not well understood, the nerves and blood vessels in the brain send signals to make the blood vessels constrict and then dilate. This in turn may signal the body to activate the immune system, which causes inflammation. This pressure can cause your brain to send pain signals. Exactly what triggers this process is still unknown. However, most headache sufferers find that certain triggers set off their symptoms. If there is an underlying medical condition causing your headache, treating that condition first may help to resolve your headache.


Applying both cold and hot compresses to manage migraine headaches may be helpful, according to a 2006 study published by the Oxford University Press. Ice or cold therapy makes your blood vessels constrict and calms inflammation. This can reduce the pressure in your head, which will ease your pain. Cold compresses also have a natural numbing effect. In contrast, warm compresses will relax your muscles. If your headaches are caused by tension in the jaw, neck or shoulders, applying heat relaxes tight muscles and eases your pain. Heat tends to relax you all over, which can help to manage stress as well. It is important to know what type of headache you have and its trigger. If you are dealing with a lot of inflammation, avoid a warm compress. Heat will open the blood vessels and increase blood flow, which will create even more pressure. If your headaches are due to tight muscles, a cold compress may tighten them even more.


Heat and cold compresses can come in many forms. Gel packs can be stored in your freezer or heated in the microwave. You can just use a towel that is soaked with hot or cold water. There are compresses made of cloth that contain beads or rice that are freezer and microwave safe as well. You may also want to try a hot or cold compress that contains herbs or homeopathic oils that promote relaxation. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Therapy recommends lavender, Valerian and chamomile. Your local herbalist or homeopathic practitioner can also recommend herbs for your specific symptoms. Remember to check with your doctor or pharmacist first. Herbs may be "all natural," but they can also be toxic and interact with other medications you may be taking.


Hot and cold compresses can be used anytime and anywhere. They can be used right when your symptoms start to flare. To avoid skin damage, you should never apply a compress from the freezer directly onto your skin. Always place a towel in between. The same is true for a very hot compress. With both hot and cold compresses you want to apply them for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time. Remove the compress and allow your skin to return to its normal temperature. Check your skin for any signs of damage. You can reapply the compress every few hours throughout the day to help calm your headache pain.

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