Can Soaking Your Feet in Hot Water Help Ease a Migraine Attack?

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Written By Rivera Claudia

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It sounds too good to be true: Can simply sticking your feet in a tub of hot water stop a migraine attack? Some people swear by it. In one video on TikTok—which has more than 21 million views and 15,000 comments—a person standing in a steaming bucket says it eased symptoms in less than five minutes.

Of course, social media is not the most reliable source of medical information. And migraine isn’t just a bad headache: It’s a complex neurological problem that can cause crushing, debilitating head pain and other symptoms. But despite the many treatments and self-care approaches out there, the search for fast-acting remedies can be frustrating.

So before you waste time on this particular DIY approach versus another one, we asked experts to weigh in on whether there is any strong scientific evidence that it can help.

What experts think

Hydrotherapy—a broad term for using hot or cold water to treat medical conditions—has been part of traditional healing practices “for thousands of years,” Melinda Ring, MD, executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Health at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, tells SELF.

But it’s not clear whether foot baths help people because of a placebo effect or if there’s some other benefit. A popular explanation on social media is that a hot soak lessens pain by diverting some blood flow to the lower limbs and away from the head. But Fred Cohen, MD, an assistant professor of neurology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, tossed some cold water (heh) on that idea.

It’s an “old-school theory” that dilated vessels cause migraine, Dr. Cohen tells SELF. Plus, he says, if blood were pulled from your head quickly enough to bring instant symptom relief, you might faint. He speculates that immersion might instead affect the nervous system in some way. The heat could stimulate nerve cells in the periphery of the body, which in theory would alter the pain signals reaching the brain during a migraine attack.

Although no one is sure why it works, there is some evidence that it does. In one study published in 2016, 40 people with chronic migraine tried a specific hydrotherapy regimen. The researchers assigned half the group to take standard migraine medication, while the rest also used baths and ice massages.1

The treatment was pretty intense: Participants submerged both their feet and arms in hot water for 20 minutes (and included a five-minute ice massage of the head) every day for 45 days. In the end, the hydrotherapy group did report a bigger drop in their headache intensity and frequency compared with the medication-only group.

It’s perfectly reasonable to give foot bathing a try since it is so simple and safe, Dr. Ring says. For example, you might give it a go while you’re waiting for your medication to kick in, she says.

Dr. Cohen has a similar view: “I would tell a patient there’s not enough evidence to validate this, but if it works for you, that’s cool.”

How to do it

As we mentioned, foot bathing is unlikely to do you harm, but make sure the water isn’t too hot, Dr. Rings notes, as scalded feet will only add to your misery.

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