The day was as perfect as a childhood summer day could be. All your friends joined you at the local watering hole, you played board games with your family and cooked burgers to enjoy as the sky turned from dusty pink to night blue. The only thing that could make the day better was to top it off with your favorite flavor of ice cream, slowly melting down the side of your ice cream cone.
As you try to eat the ice cream before it melts, the day suddenly turns for the worse. The pain hits you square in the head as you keel over in pain. It feels as though your brain is splitting in two and all you can do is grasp your forehead in an attempt to relieve the pain. As you come back from the depths of despair, you find everyone laughing— that’s when you hear the words “brain freeze” for the first time.
So, what is a brain freeze? Why does it seem to happen when eating delicious frozen treats? We researched these pressing questions and more to help your summer stay sunny.
What is a Brain Freeze?
Simply put, a brain freeze, otherwise known as a cold-stimulus headache, is when your brain reacts to something cold you eat or drink. The scientific term is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, which translates to the pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG). In case you can’t say that tongue twister, just know it’s when the cluster of nerves located in the back of your mouth towards your throat experiences sudden cold.
When sudden frostiness hits this cluster of nerves, they send a signal to your brain which then reacts by activating the pain receptors in an attempt to get you to stop. Even though the cause of pain is in your mouth, the brain doesn’t always do a great job at being precise. That is why you experience pain in the middle of your forehead instead of inside your mouth. Doctors will often call this type of pain “referred pain.” The result is a sudden, icepick-like pain in your forehead that tends to stop most people in their tracks.
What Causes a Brain Freeze?
Although brain freezes are mostly attributed to eating frozen desserts, they can happen anytime the SPG nerve experiences sudden, onset cold. That means that you can get a brain freeze due to cold water, stepping outside in winter, or abruptly getting blasted by the air conditioner in your office.
Although the cause is often debated, most medical professionals believe that brain freezes are induced when the roof of the mouth or back of the throat experience a sudden cold substance. The onset of cold causes the blood vessels to constrict, which then triggers the pain receptors. The receptors then notify the nerve cluster, which then moves the pain message to the brain. That is when the referred pain kicks in, producing that acute pain most people experience at some point in their lives.
There is bad news for migraine-sufferers: if you experience migraines, you are more likely to suffer from brain freezes.
Why are Brain Freezes So Painful?
The unexpected pain of a cold-stimulus headache prompts most people to freeze up and hold their head in agony. It certainly seems excessive to get a brain freeze when you eat something as delicious as ice cream too fast. Although the fleeting nature of the brain freeze makes it challenging to study, medical experts have been able to link the SPG to other types of headaches.
Scientists still do not know precisely what causes the headache, however. Some studies suggest it is due to an artery in the front of the brain dilating, thus causing the brain to pinpoint the pain there. Others believe it is due to the irritation of the trigeminal nerve, which is the nerve that causes idiopathic stabbing headaches. Whatever the case, there seems to be a relationship between what induces many headaches and what causes brain freezes. The link between migraines and brain freezes are likely why they are so painful.
How do You Stop a Brain Freeze?
The best way to stop a brain freeze is prevention. When eating or drinking a cold treat, take your time. If you are worried about the ice cream melting before you can eat it, you can try some tricks to slow the meltdown and keep it from melting through your Joy Cone. Additionally, you can keep the treat towards the front of your mouth as you eat it. Doing this allows for your mouth to warm it up before it comes in contact with the SPG nerves in your palate.
Brain freezes typically resolve on their own within a few minutes. However, there are plenty of tricks to alleviate the pain sooner. Most people swear by pressing the tongue to the roof of the mouth. Other methods include drinking warm (not hot) water or covering your nose and mouth with your hands and breathing into them to warm your palate, similar to what many do in winter to warm their hands and noses. All these tricks function in the same way— warming up the palate and, subsequently, the SPG nerve.
Once you have shown your brain freeze the cold shoulder, you can get back to enjoying your JOYful summer day. Go ahead and scoop yourself another cone; you deserve it for making it through that headache!