TikTokers are recommending a new migraine hack: soaking one’s feet in hot water to alleviate the pain.
Studies suggest that hydrotherapy could be effective in alleviating the frequency and intensity of headaches, but this has not been proven.
Migraine experts say that the hack may be more of a distraction than a cure.
TikTokers are soaking their feet in near-burning water to get rid of migraine headaches—and they suggest you do it, too.
Some influencers rave about the trend—which involves filling a basin with the hottest water you can handle and placing your feet in it—saying that it relieves the pain. But does it really work? And if so, why?
Does a hot foot bath treat migraine pain?
There aren’t a lot of studies on the effectiveness of hot foot baths for treating migraine headaches, but some research suggests that hydrotherapy techniques, which involve subjecting the body to different temperatures of water, can be effective in alleviating pain.
One example, a small 2016 study, found that hydrotherapy techniques, like soaking the feet and arms in hot water and administering an ice massage to the head, could reduce the frequency and intensity of headaches in those who suffer from migraines.
Cold versions of hydrotherapy, like ice packs or cold compresses, are also commonly used to mitigate head pain. Athletes commonly use hot or cold packs to reduce swelling in muscles, too.
Why does it work?
Subjecting the body to different temperatures may reduce swelling in the head, which can occur during a headache or migraine and cause pain. Hydrotherapy can cause local vasoconstriction followed by reflexive vasodilatation, allowing blood vessels to relax. If hydrotherapy reaches the blood vessels around the head, where the headache occurs, this may help with pain.
Our feet are at the other end of our bodies than our heads, raising the question as to whether a foot bath can truly target the intended area.
Some experts, like Kunal Sood, MD, a TikTok influencer and medical doctor, say “yes.” In a TikTok, Dr. Sood says that warming your feet will dilate the blood vessels in your feet and encourage blood to flow away from your head and down your body. (However, he also suggests that the hack comes with no side effects, which appears to be untrue.)
Others, like Thomas Berk, MD, FAHS, Medical Director of Neura Health and a neurologist and headache specialist in New York City, say this is less tried and true.
“Although, to an extent, blood vessels do dilate in response to heat, warming up your feet would not draw blood away from the brain in any meaningful way,” Dr. Berk explains. “Soaking your feet is more of a distraction from the headache than something that directly impacts the brain or the process of migraine.”
He suggests that, as a distraction, applying heat or another distracting stimulus to another part of the body could be equally effective as the foot bath trend. But for some people, it might feel nice to soak their feet.
Risks with hot foot baths
Contrary to what TikTok may say, there are side effects to putting your feet in extra hot water, one of them being the potential of developing burns.
“In the videos I’ve seen, I’ve heard people say that they have almost scalded their feet, which can lead to additional medical complications,” Dr. Berk says.
He adds that “any level of heat therapy” may have side effects for people with certain conditions. People with heart disease, diabetes, skin issues, or circulatory problems should make sure to talk to their doctors before pursuing heat therapy techniques, he says.
Pain relief or not, foot soaks aren’t a migraine cure
Migraine disease is a complex condition with more symptoms than a standard headache and currently has no cure. It is also the second leading cause of global disability, impacting more than 40 million people in the US.
Dr. Berk encourages doctors, when talking to patients about remedies or treatments for their pain, not to undermine the condition with overpromising hacks.
“As a headache specialist and migraine advocate, the biggest issue I see with this trend is that it contributes to migraine’s incredible stigma and suggests that there is a simple treatment for something that can be very complex,” Dr. Berk says. “It’s difficult enough for people with migraine to receive proper treatment or have their very real symptoms and level of disability be taken seriously by their care team and family.”
He adds that there is no particularly good reason for soaking one’s feet; a distracting stimulus applied to another part of the body would be equally effective. It might just be nice to soak the feet.