Everyone knows the feeling when you eat ice cream too quickly or slurp down too much of a slushy in one go—it’s practically a rite of summer. That searing sensation that tingles in your brain, right at the top of your forehead, leaving you incapable of doing anything but put your head in your hands and yell ‘Brain freeze!’
We’ve all experienced this ice cream headache, but what exactly is a brain freeze?
Simply put, a brain freeze is a short-term headache. In more complicated terms it’s called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Scientists are not completely certain on the science behind brain freeze yet. A brain freeze is linked to the rapid consumption of cold products and occurs when one of these products comes into contact with the roof of the mouth, which causes the blood vessels to rapidly constrict. It’s our body’s way of saying ‘hey, slow down with that one’ while we consume large amounts of cold products.
The human mouth is highly vascularised, which is why we take our temperatures there. Eating ice cream too quickly doesn’t give the mouth sufficient time to absorb the cold properly, resulting in the ‘freeze’ feeling. Brain freeze is basically a mechanism to prevent us from changing the temperature in our mouths.
It’s not just ice cream.
It’s not actually sensing cold, the brain can’t sense cold or pain because lacks its own internal sensory receptors.
Another theory is a change in the excitability of pathways that detect and transmit the feeling of pain via the trigeminal nerve, the major nerve at the roof of your mouth that sends sensory information from the head to the central nervous system. If an overexcitable trigeminal system applies to brain freeze, the threshold may be low enough to cause a painful sensation after a small encounter with something cold like ice cream.
Does everyone get them?
No, some people can suck down as many icy soft drinks as they please without ever feeling the freeze. The leading theories for the causes of brain freeze have to do with a physical response that everyone should feel. If brain freeze occurs due to something cold triggering the trigeminal nerve, then everyone should get them as it’s a natural part of the body. But show that only 37 per cent of Americans feel brain freeze. Brain freeze may have an inheritable component, meaning kids who have brain freeze usually have parents who experience it too.
Scientists believe brain freeze can be helpful in understanding other types of headaches. Migraine sufferers are more likely to suffer brain freeze compared to those who never have migraines, suggesting a common underlying mechanism for both. A study (N = 114) compared how common brain freeze was in migraine sufferers and those with stress or ‘tension-type headaches’. “Pain in the head” was recorded in 74 per cent of migraine and 32 per cent of ‘tension-type headache’ patients with a difference in the intensity and location of the pain.
So, how do we fight the freeze?
The most common tricks to combatting brain freeze are:
- Drinking warm water
- Covering the mouth and nose with hands and breathe rapidly to increase the flow of warm air to the palate
- Pushing your tongue to the roof of your mouth to help warm the area
- Or simply not eating too many cold things too.
It’s hard to research and understand the nitty-gritty of brain freeze because most cases aren’t recorded and resolve themselves quickly, but the possibility of pain won’t stop us from enjoying some well-deserved ice-cream.