brain freeze explained
25 March, 2008
Why do we get “brain freeze” when we eat something cold?
-Christina Zuniga, via e-mail
Mark A. W. Andrews, professor of physiology and director of the Independent Study Pathway at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, replies:
This commonly experienced pain, also known as an ice cream headache, results from quickly eating or drinking very cold substances. Officially termed sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia (talk about a painful mouthful!), it is the direct result of the rapid cooling and rewarming of the blood vessels in the palate, or the roof of the mouth. 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 blood vessels 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 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, which is blissfully short as compared with the duration of its cousin, the migraine headache. 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. Interestingly, it is impossible to give yourself an ice cream headache in cold weather—only in a warm ambient temperature will it hurt to wolf down a banana split.
Fortunately, abstaining from ice cream is not necessary. Placing the tongue hard against the palate may help, as will eating cold foods more slowly or warming food in the front of your mouth before swallowing.
Don’t you feel so much better now!!?! I do.