Some people may find that showers can reduce the pain linked to headaches and migraine. Both warm and cool showers may work as a type of water therapy to help reduce symptoms.

Over-the-counter pain relievers are typically a first-line treatment for headaches and migraine. But some people find other treatments may also help ease symptoms, such as using a shower as water therapy to alleviate pain.

Using water to treat symptoms throughout the body is hydrotherapy. Hydrotherapy could be something simple, such as taking a bath or shower at home or using specialist tanks or pools that are hot or cold with pressurized jets and ice packs. People may use the term thermotherapy to describe using warm water therapeutically and cryotherapy for extreme cold therapy.

There is little scientific study into headache and hydrotherapy, specifically. However, anecdotal evidence and individual case studies suggest it could be helpful alongside standard pharmaceutical treatments, such as acetaminophen, to reduce pain.

This article examines whether showers can help relieve headaches. We look at the types of headaches they may improve, the science behind how they help, and how people may use showers to reduce headache pain.

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Showers may help ease headache symptoms in some people. Other people may find it makes their symptoms worse. The outcome depends on the individual and the type of headache they are experiencing.

For example, an individual with tension headache may find symptom relief from warm water on their head, neck, and shoulders. But for someone with migraine, heat could be a migraine trigger and worsen their symptoms.

Learn more about headaches here.

What are tension headaches and migraine?

Tension headache is the most common primary headache. It can feel as though there is tightness or pressure on the forehead and sides of the head like a tight band is pressing against it. Doctors do not know the exact cause of tension headaches, but it may sometimes link to muscular tension in the head, shoulders, and neck or poor posture.

Migraine is a condition that typically causes painful headaches. Nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light and sound may accompany migraine episodes. People may also experience visual disturbances, such as seeing flashes or having blind spots in their field of vision. These disturbances are called auras.

Researchers have not identified a definitive cause for migraine. They indicate that unusual brain activity that impacts nerve signaling, chemicals, and blood vessels in the brain may play a role.

Learn more about migraine here.

Showers could help headaches in the following ways:

Relax muscles

Warm water can help relax the head, neck, and shoulder muscles, relieving tension headaches. As the skin and soft tissue temperature rise, vasodilation increases blood flow. Vasodilation occurs when blood vessels widen due to their muscular walls relaxing. The increased blood flow relaxes tight muscles, increases their elasticity, and reduces pain.

Block pain

A warm or cold shower may help reduce headache pain by interfering with pain pathways.

Sensory receptors are in all layers of the skin. Signals from the skin come from:

  • mechanoreceptors that detect physical changes
  • thermoreceptors that sense temperature
  • nociceptors that perceive pain

Nociceptors are nerve endings in the skin, muscles, and other body areas. When unpleasant stimuli activate nociceptors, people experience pain. There are no nociceptors in the brain, so while the brain itself cannot feel pain, its surrounding areas can, such as:

  • the brain covering (meninges)
  • blood vessels
  • nerve tissues
  • neck muscles

Once stimulated, a nociceptor transmits a pain signal through nerve fibers to the nerve cells in the brain, communicating that an area of the body hurts.

Applying warm or cold to body areas in pain stimulates thermoreceptors, which may interrupt and block the pain signals nociceptors transmit to the brain.

Reduce migraine

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), people can use a cool cloth or ice pack to soothe migraine. A cool shower may have the same effect.

Researchers are still determining how cold therapy works to help migraine. An older 2013 study found that applying ice packs to the neck at the start of a migraine significantly reduced pain. The researchers suggest the ice packs may cool the blood flowing through the carotid arteries in the neck, reducing inflammation and pain.

Applying cold to the skin causes vasoconstriction. Vasoconstriction is a response to cold that involves narrowing blood vessels at the skin’s surface.

A typical drug for migraine, called triptans, also causes vasoconstriction, though by a different mechanism. Triptans increase levels of the serotonin neurotransmitter in the brain, causing blood vessels to constrict and lowering the pain threshold.

People can use the following strategies while having a shower to help relieve a headache:

  • Be mindful of shower temperature: A hot shower to relax a tension headache may provide quick relief, but a cool shower could be more helpful for a migraine episode.
  • Scent the shower: Using natural scents, such as peppermint or lavender, may help relieve pain from tension headaches and migraine. A 2017 study found that applying diluted peppermint essential oil may reduce pain in people with episodic tension headaches. Older 2012 research noted a reduction in migraine pain after only 15 minutes of inhaling lavender essential oil. Make sure to use quality essential oils, as artificial fragrances can have the opposite effect.
  • Inhale steam: Steam inhalation may help people with sinus headaches. The steam from a warm shower can help open the nasal passages and relieve sinus pain and pressure.
  • Use a compress: Placing a warm or cool compress on the back of the neck or forehead while standing in the shower can target specific areas of the head, neck, and shoulders to alleviate tension and ease pain.

Most people can treat headaches at home with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers.

If people take OTC treatments for headaches more than twice a week, they should speak with a doctor.

Someone should also contact a doctor for advice if their headaches are:

  • more severe than usual
  • occurring more often than usual
  • not improving or worsening with OTC treatments
  • preventing them from sleeping, working, and doing everyday activities
  • causing them distress

Sometimes, a headache can be a symptom of a severe condition that requires immediate medical treatment. Anyone experiencing the following symptoms in addition to a sudden, severe headache should go to a hospital emergency room or call 911:

  • fainting
  • confusion or difficulty understanding speech
  • stiff neck
  • fever of 102–104°F (38.8–40°C) or above
  • numbness or weakness on one side of the body
  • difficulty speaking
  • trouble seeing
  • inability to walk
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Doctors may prescribe preventive medications to some people, particularly when they have chronic or frequent headaches that do not respond to pain relievers.

Preventive medications may include:

Lifestyle changes and stress management strategies may also prevent headaches, such as:

  • maintaining regular sleep patterns
  • not skipping meals
  • getting regular exercise
  • drinking enough fluids
  • meditating
  • relaxation training
  • trying talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Showers may help reduce the pain linked to headaches and migraine. People can try a warm or cool shower to improve their symptoms depending on the type of headache they are experiencing and their preferences.

Some people find warm showers relax their muscles and ease symptoms of tension headaches, while others find a cooler shower or cold compress can help alleviate a migraine-related headache.

Hot and cold therapies may improve headaches through several mechanisms. Researchers have yet to determine the exact reason why they help. Widening or narrowing of blood vessels may play a role in improving symptoms, or it could be that the temperature changes the skin receptors that identify and interfere with the pain signals.

People could try water therapy in combination with OTC pain relievers as a quick and easy way to soothe their symptoms while pain medications start to work.