The terms “brain freeze” or “ice cream headache” describe a sudden, stabbing forehead pain that occurs after drinking a cold drink or eating ice cream too quickly. In medical terms, it is known as sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia or cold stimulus headache. It is known mostly to occur in the hotter parts of the year, since most tend to drink colder fluids or enjoy cold treats during this time. Rapid constriction of blood vessels in the upper palate or roof of the mouth may also cause brain freeze. Warming the roof of the mouth can help prevent this.
Cold temperature causes the capillaries within the sinuses to constrict and experience extreme rebound dilation as they warm up again. The dilation is sensed by nearby pain receptors, which then sends signals to the brain by way of the trigeminal nerve (one of the major nerves of the facial area). The trigeminal nerve also senses facial pain, so as the neural signals are conducted the brain interprets the pain as originating from the forehead. Since the actual pain is coming from a different location, it is known as “referred pain”.
Research on Brain Freeze
Headaches, similar to migraines, can be difficult to study since they are unpredictable. Researchers are unable to monitor the entirety of a headache from beginning to end in the lab. They can administer drugs to induce migraines; however, these drugs can have side effects that may interfere with results. Brain freeze is a quick, simple method to induce a headache in the lab. This form of headache also ceases quickly; thus, making the entire event far easier to monitor. For this reason, a research was conducted in which 13 healthy subjects were given ice water to sip through straws against the upper palate of their mouths. These volunteers were then instructed to raise their hands when they began to experience a brain freeze and raise them again once the freeze had subsided. The researchers monitored blood flow through the subjects’ brains using an ultrasound-like process on the skull. They observed an increased blood flow to the brain through the anterior cerebral artery, which is a blood vessel located in the center of the brain behind the eyes. This increased flow and increased size in the anterior cerebral artery brought about the pain that is associated with brain freeze.
When this artery constricts, reining in the response of this increased blood flow, the pain dissipates. Researchers suggest that the dilation, and then rapid constriction, of this vessel may be some type of self-defense mechanism of the brain.
Symptoms of Brain Freeze
Individuals who experience brain freeze often report the following symptoms:
- Sharp, shooting pain in the forehead.
- Sudden pain that lasts 20-26 seconds and slowly subsides.
- Stabbing forehead pain that often persists no longer than 5 minutes.
Brain freeze is usually not serious and will subside on its own shortly after occurring; thus, there is no need to visit a doctor for the matter.
Treatment of Brain Freeze
Though brain freeze is not serious, it is still a very unpleasant sensation. One of the best preventative measures to avoid brain freeze is to reduce instances of cold stimuli on the palate or roof of the mouth. Avoid consuming cold foods and drinks too quickly or all at once.
Below are some of the ways in which you can treat brain freeze:
- Consume drinks that are warmer than the cold substance that led to the brain freeze.
- Push your tongue to the roof of your mouth in order to warm it.
- Cup your hands over your nose and mouth and start breathing rapidly. This increases warm air flow to the palate.
- Tilt your head backwards for at least 10 seconds.
- For frozen treats, mixing a warm topping, such as hot fudge on ice cream, can reduce the risk of ice cream headaches.
Brain Freeze and Migraines
Previous research has revealed that individuals who are prone to migraines are more susceptible to brain freeze or more severe brain freeze. Additionally, it was also suggested that what occurs with brain freeze is similar to what leads to migraines and other types of headache, including certain traumatic brain injuries.
If such findings can be confirmed in further studies, then newer forms of medication, which would prevent or reverse the vasodilation, could be very helpful in treating such headaches.
5 Facts About Brain Freeze
Below are some interesting fun facts about brain freeze:
- Not everyone experiences brain freeze or ice cream headache. It is estimated that around 30 percent of individuals who consume ice cream, or other cold substances, experience it.
- There are no pain receptors present in the brain; thus, the pain that occurs with brain freeze does not actually originate from the brain.
- Brain freeze does not actually freeze the brain cells. However, if the brain cells did freeze, they would be ruptured by ice crystals and then turn to mush.
- Frozen drinks and foods probably won’t alter the brain’s temperature. However, neurosurgeons frequently reduce the temperature of the brain down to 64 degrees Fahrenheit during surgery.
- Dogs absolutely love ice cream and gobble it up whenever they can; however, no one really knows if they experience brain freeze like humans do.
Though a deeply unpleasant feeling, brain freeze is both harmless and temporary. It is most commonly caused by consuming cold foods and drinks too quickly. For those who are prone to cold stimulus headaches, it is recommended to avoid or limit the intake of frozen foods and avoid drinking cold drinks through a straw. When experiencing a brain freeze, there are several tricks that can be used to relieve the immediate pain. Simply adding hot syrup or chocolate to a cold treat can help prevent the occurrence of an ice cream headache. However, the best preventative measure to avoid brain freeze is to consume cold drinks and foods at a slower pace.
It is estimated that one in three people suffer from brain freeze or ice cream headaches. The exact cause for these headaches is still unknown and a subject of debate.
- Previous research has revealed that individuals who are prone to migraines are more susceptible to brain freeze or more severe brain freeze.
- One of the best preventative measures to avoid brain freeze is to reduce instances of cold stimuli on the plate or roof of the mouth.
- Brain freeze is usually not serious and will subside on its own shortly after occurring; thus, there is no need to visit a doctor for the matter.