A Moment of Science

Putting the Freeze on Brain Freeze

If you had to guess the most common cause of headaches, would you ever suspect the culprit is ice cream?

brain_freeze

Photo: eyeliam (flickr)

A few seconds after eating very cold liquid or food, one in three people experience that sharp ache in the forehead and temples.

If you had to guess the most common cause of headaches, would you ever suspect the culprit is ice cream? A few seconds after eating very cold liquid or food, one in three people experience that sharp ache in the forehead and temples commonly known as brain freeze or ice cream headache. Though the headaches can be severe, they go away within a few minutes, but why do they happen at all?

According to neurologist Joseph Hulihan, the headaches result when cold overstimulates the nerves and blood vessels at the back of the roof of the mouth, but scientists continue to explore exactly how the cold stimulus causes the pain. Is brain freeze an example of referred pain? That’s when the brain receives a message of pain from one part of the body, but misreads the return address, perceiving it as coming from the somewhere else.

Does the cold cause pain primarily by stimulating the nerves in the roof of the mouth? Or does it cool the blood vessels, prompting some response to decreased blood temperature?

Many questions remain about the exact mechanisms of ice cream headaches, but ice cream lovers, take heart! Scientists agree that there’s no need to seek medical attention for the harmless, short-lived pain of ice cream headaches. There are ways you can put the freeze on brain freeze. Eating cold foods slowly, allowing the roof of your mouth to warm back up, can prevent the headaches entirely. To ease the pain once it starts, drink lukewarm water. Remember you’re in good company, a third of the people at the ice cream stand have experienced brain freeze too.

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