Whether you know it as brain freeze, cold-stimulus headache, or ice cream headache, you probably know the pain and agony of the head-splitting phenomena known in medical communities as sphenopalatine gangiolneuralgia.
An ice cream headache is your punishment for wolfing down a cold food or drink too quickly. Ice cream is the most common culprit, according to Dr. Joseph Hulihan of the Department of Neurology at Temple University Health Sciences Center. In fact, a full one-third of subjects studied were victims of brain freeze when consuming ice cream.
So why does it happen? Most scientists believe that the cause of the problem has some similarities to migraine headaches, which can be caused by dilating and constricting blood vessels, known as vascular mechanism. When you introduce an ice-cold food or beverage to your much-warmer mouth, specifically the roof of the mouth, the blood vessels rapidly plummet to a low temperature and constrict; upon warming up, the blood vessels dilate. This quick transition from constriction to dilation is picked up by your body’s pain receptors, which tell the brain that you’re in pain by sending signals along the trigeminal nerve. The trigeminal nerve (which goes by the nickname V) is largely dedicated to facial sensations. When the pain signals move up the trigeminal nerve to the brain, the brain misinterprets the information as coming from the forehead, causing the headache. When your body feels pain in a different area than the actual injury, it’s called “referred pain”. It’s the same phenomena that people experience during a heart attack when they feel intense pain not in their chest but in their neck, shoulders, or back.
How can you protect yourself against the horrors of brain freeze? First off, slow down. You need your mouth to adapt to the new temperature so that it can properly prepare for it. Secondly, don’t be in too much of a rush to swallow: instead, let the cold food or beverage sit in the front of your mouth to warm up before letting it hit the roof of your mouth. A final suggestion? Move somewhere colder: because brain freeze only occurs when your mouth and body is significantly warmer than whatever you are eating, you’d be hard-pressed to experience brain freeze if you’re body is already pretty cold.