Brain Freeze – What Is It Really?
We’ve all experienced it, right? You take a giant gulp of that blue raspberry coolatta from Dunkin Donuts and what happens? You get the brain freeze, right? To quote Charlie Brown…AUUUUUGH!!!
Get through it, get through it, get through it, ok now it’s gone. Whew. Ok, now do it again. We have our remedies like taking a sip of a warm liquid to counteract the cold. My teenage daughter actually suggested that I press my thumb firmly to the roof of my mouth until the pain subsides. Does this work? Maybe. Maybe more psychological than anything else. So what is the science behind these summer discomforts? Here is the Geeky reasoning…
“Ice cream headaches” result from quickly eating or drinking very cold substances. It is commonly experienced when applying ice-cream (or similar) to the roof of the mouth (palate) or when swallowing it. Typically the headache appears in about 10 seconds and lasts about 20 seconds although some people experience much longer lapses of pain, with the pain seeming to relate to the same side of the head as the cold substance was applied to the palate, or to both sides of the head in the case of swallowing. The most effective way to prevent it is to consume the cold food or liquid at a slower rate. Keeping it in one’s mouth long enough for the palate to become used to the temperature is also an effective preventative.
An ice cream headache is the direct result of the rapid cooling and rewarming of the capillaries in the sinuses. A similar but painless blood vessel response causes the face to appear “flushed” after being outside on a cold day. In both instances, the cold temperature causes the capillaries in the sinuses to constrict and then experience extreme rebound dilation as they warm up again.
In the palate, this dilation is sensed by nearby pain receptors, which then send signals back to the brain via the trigeminal nerve, one of the major nerves of the facial area. This nerve also senses facial pain, so as the neural signals are conducted the brain interprets the pain as coming from the forehead—the same “referred pain” phenomenon seen in heart attacks. Brain-freeze pain may last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Research suggests that the same vascular mechanism and nerve implicated in “brain freeze” cause the aura (sensory disturbance) and pulsatile (throbbing pain) phases of migraines.
It is possible to suffer from an ice-cream headache in both hot and cold weather, because the effect relies upon the temperature of the food being consumed rather than that of the environment.