What causes that painful ice cream headache?

Posted July 31

July is National Ice Cream Month, which means people may be getting more ice cream headaches, also known as "brain freeze" or "cold stimulus headaches."

Though a common occurrence, it wasn't until 1988 that cold stimulus headaches were officially recognized as a condition by the International Headache Society.

The technical name of brain freeze is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, which means nerve pain in the top of the mouth. This is why many people think that if you hold your tongue to the roof of your mouth, the sensation will go away.

While it is a fairly common phenomenon, researchers still do not know exactly what causes sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. But there are theories.

"We think it has to do with the body's reaction to the cold, like a protective mechanism," Dr. Yasha Kayan, a neurointerventionalist at Abbott Northwestern, told CBS News. "One of the theories is that there's extra blood flow to the brain and that increases the pressure in the brain and gives you a headache."

Medical News Today shared research that Dr. Jorge Serrador, a cardiovascular researcher at Harvard Medical School, had done on brain freeze. He asked research participants to sip ice-cold water through a straw to induce brain freeze while doctors monitored blood flow to the brain. They found that blood flow to the brain increased when research subjects experienced brain freeze. This could mean that the pain felt during brain freeze comes from a rapid increase in blood flow to the brain through the anterior cerebral artery, which increases pressure in the brain. The pain goes away when the artery and blood vessels return to normal and pressure in the brain stabilizes.

Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center neuroscientist Dwayne Godwin told Science Daily that drinking or eating cold things fast doesn't give the mouth a chance to adjust to the cold. Ice cream or cold liquid can rapidly change the temperature at the back of the throat. That's where the internal carotid artery, which carries blood to the brain, is located.

"One thing the brain doesn't like is for things to change, and brain freeze is a mechanism to prevent you from doing that," Godwin said.

While the brain doesn't like the temperature change, it doesn't actually feel pain. Godwin explains that the pain from brain freeze comes from the meninges, receptors in the outer covering of the brain where the internal carotid artery and anterior cerebral artery meet. The meninges cause dilation and contraction of the arteries, which the brain interprets as pain.

The brain keeps itself warm at all costs, according to If the brain feels threatened by cold, it will dilate the blood vessels and send an increase of warm blood to the brain. The rapid change in blood flow and temperature may contribute to the pain felt during brain freeze.

Eating ice cream or consuming cold drinks quickly can increase the likelihood of getting brain freeze, though people can get brain freeze when eating or drinking something cold slowly.

Brain freezes are uncomfortable but harmless and usually last for about a half minute.


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