People on TikTok are standing in water for migraine relief. Is there any science behind the trend?
If you live with migraine, you likely know that it’s a chronic neurological condition that doesn’t have a cure. But you probably also know that various treatment options can help reduce the frequency of migraine episodes and alleviate symptoms when one hits.
Recently, people on TikTok have been talking about a new option for migraine relief: putting your feet in hot water.
So, is there any science to back up this trend? And can standing in hot water actually offer relief from symptoms? Let’s dive in (to a bowl of water, feet first).
TikTok is full of health and wellness trends — some useful, some not. One recent trend touts the benefits of a foot bath for migraine relief.
How does it work according to TikTok users? Simple. Take a container (think: mixing bowl, basin, bucket, anything big enough for your feet) and fill it with water. The water should be as hot as you can handle but not hot enough to burn you. Then, step into the bowl, making sure to submerge your feet and ankles entirely.
If you’re feeling adventurous, some users suggest adding other things to your bowl, like ginger or mustard, then soaking your feet in your hot, infused water.
Users report relief from migraine symptoms within minutes or after half an hour or so of submersion in the water. Some even say their migraine episode goes away entirely.
So, what does the clinical science say about this TikTok technique?
To find that answer, let’s zoom out to the medical cause behind migraine — read: why triggers cause migraine episodes in some people but not in other people.
The ANS is the part of your overall nervous system that controls basic, involuntary functions in the body, such as:
The ANS includes three divisions that coordinate with each other:
The SNS and the PNS are like complementary opposites of one another, keeping you in balance. The SNS carries signals that keep your body alert, whereas the PNS carries signals that relax your body. For example, the SNS increases your heart rate and the PNS decreases it.
While studies evaluating SNS versus PNS dysfunction in migraine have shown varying results (although most point to SNS dysfunction being more commonly linked to migraine), the fact remains that something in the ANS appears to be part of the migraine process.
In other words, researchers think that migraine could be linked with some changes in ANS function. It’s not clear whether some disruption in ANS function actually starts a migraine episode or whether it’s a step in the migraine process, but this hot foot bath treatment is based on the idea that regulating ANS function could provide some relief.
How does this all relate to standing in water? Well, when something isn’t functioning correctly in the ANS, you may be able to help regulate the system with a foot bath.
An older 2007 study found that foot baths at 42°C (about 108°F) for a period of 10 minutes shifted participants’ ANS function toward a decrease in SNS activity and an increase in PNS activity. A 2008 study found the same: warm foot baths decreased SNS activity and increased PNS activity.
In other words, research suggests that foot baths (a form of hydrotherapy) can help regulate the ANS by shifting it to a more relaxed state. And when the ANS is relaxed, the body is relaxed, too.
Now to bring things back to migraine. 2022 research shows that regulating the ANS may help relieve migraine symptoms. If a foot bath can help regulate the ANS, could this technique offer migraine relief, too?
While there isn’t much clinical research on the effect of foot baths and hydrotherapy on migraine specifically, there is some. Over a period of 6 weeks, a 2016 study administered 20-minute foot and arm baths (like a foot bath, but your arms are in water) between 103°F and 110°F (39°C and 43°C) to people with migraine. During the warm baths, participants also applied an ice pack to their heads.
Not only does the study report that the treatment helped regulate the ANS, but it also notes that participants experienced migraine symptom relief and decreases in frequency and intensity of migraine episodes.
There may be some similarities between using hydrotherapy to warm your extremities and using thermal biofeedback, both of which are strategies for migraine relief. Thermal biofeedback involves learning how to raise the temperature of your hands (and sometimes feet) as a relaxation technique to combat migraine symptoms.
Both hydrotherapy and thermal biofeedback focus on calming and relaxing your body, which, as the previously mentioned studies demonstrate, may help alleviate migraine symptoms.
As for adding ingredients to your foot bath, research has shown that ginger may offer relief from migraine symptoms.
A 2013 study involving people with migraine without aura, for example, compared migraine treatment with ginger powder versus the medication sumatriptan. The study reports that participants who took ginger powder experienced symptom relief and a decrease in migraine severity similar to those who took the medication.
Other studies note, however, that clinical evidence isn’t super solid yet: more research is needed in order to recommend ginger as an effective way to treat or prevent migraine episodes.
Regardless, it’s unclear whether putting ginger in a foot bath can have any impact on symptoms, as this method applies ginger externally rather than ingesting it.
As for mustard, adding this ingredient to your foot bath appears to be mainly user-tested rather than clinically-supported. Anecdotally it may work, but the medical jury is still out.
People on TikTok are standing in water for migraine relief and for many, this foot bath strategy seems to work.
Science-wise, the reason may be related to a link between the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and migraine. Studies have shown that hydrotherapy such as foot baths can help regulate the ANS.
While more studies are needed on how hydrotherapy and ANS regulation relate to migraine specifically, some research has already shown favorable results. So clinically speaking, a hot foot bath just may be able to stop your migraine episode in its tracks or at the very least offer symptom relief.
Submerging your feet and ankles in hot water is (very, very) low risk and easy to do at home. If you’ve tried it during a migraine episode and it’s helped alleviate your symptoms — or better yet, stopped your episode — then more power to you!
Anecdotal and personal experience with migraine relief is also totally valid. When you find something that works for you, you may as well keep doing it as long as it isn’t putting your health at risk.
Medically reviewed on September 29, 2023
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