Massaging Temples and Other Maneuvers to Treat Headaches

Are they Effective?

Massaging Your Temples to Ease Your Headache
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Headaches commonly present themselves at inconvenient times, like when a person is in the middle of a meeting, a family outing, or stuck on an airplane. Often over-the-counter medications are not readily available, and a nap is just not possible at the moment. So many people turn to self pain-alleviating maneuvers to temporarily ease their pain.

But does temple massage or applying a cold washcloth to your head actually work?

What are Self Pain-Relieving Maneuvers?

Self-pain-relieving maneuvers are self-soothing behaviors a person does to ease pain in their body, like that of a headache. These are commonly used by people suffering from a tension headache or migraine. Here are examples of self-soothing headache maneuvers:

  • Massaging the temples, neck, or scalp with hand, fingers, or an object.
  • Applying cold to the affected area, like with a cold pack, cold drink, or cold hand.
  • Applying heat to the affected area, usually with a scarf, hair dryer, or hot shower.
  • Compression or pressing firmly on the area of pain — or using a handkerchief wrapped tightly around the head.

It's interesting to note that compression is more common in migraineurs, and scalp massage is more common in people with tension headaches. This is likely due to the sensation caused by a migraine (throbbing, like a drum beating on your brain) versus a tension headache (a tight grip or band around your head).

On the other hand, according to a 2001 study in Cephalalgia, people with cluster headaches are more likely to utilize unique maneuvers, like covering one ear, lateral rotation of the head, shallow breathing, moving about, or closing the nostril on the same side as the head pain.

Do These Maneuvers Work?

While these maneuvers may provide temporary relief, the pain usually returns as soon as the maneuver is stopped.

In fact, according to the 2001 study in Cephalalgia, only 8 percent of the 400 headache participants reported that the maneuvers resulted in good or excellent pain control.

Still, nearly half of the participants continued to use self-pain-relieving maneuvers at each headache attack, despite the lack of any substantial relief.

A Word from Verywell

While these self-pain-relieving behaviors are temporarily effective at best, it's okay if you use them, as they are harmless. Possibly doing something good for yourself adds a psychological benefit, which is hard to calculate from a study. Go with your gut on this one.


Bag, B., & Karabulut, N. Pain-relieving factors in migraine and tension-type headache. International Journal of Clinical Practice, 2005 Jul;59(7):760-3.

Zanchin, G., et al. Self-administered pain-relieving manoeuvres in primary headaches. Cephalagia, 2001 Sep;21(7):718-26.

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