What Causes Brain Freeze? Find Out the Science Behind Ice Cream Headaches

Ever wondered why eating or drinking something cold too fast triggers a splitting, short-lived headache? Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia is the medical term for what is more commonly referred to as a brain freeze or an ice cream headache.

what causes brain freeze
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Brain freeze occurs when something extremely cold touches the upper palate (roof of the mouth). It usually occurs when a person consumes something cold too quickly in hot weather. This short-term headache can be extremely uncomfortable, but fortunately, it is completely non-threatening.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School believe their findings on brain freeze could help treat migraines and other types of headaches caused by brain injuries.

What causes brain freeze?

Greg McLauchlin, MD, Assistant Professor of Neurology at Baylor College of Medicine explains the causes of brain freeze. According to him, cold foods and drinks cool the roof of the mouth and throat. The internal carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain, runs behind those areas. Eating cold foods actually cools the blood flowing to and from the brain.

The brain freeze headache occurs when the blood flowing to the brain becomes too cold. This alarm tells you to stop or reduce your intake of cold foods or beverages to keep your brain temperature stable.

“Your brain has to send a signal that you cannot ignore. It can’t be a tickle. It can’t be an itch. It has to be something that makes you stop,” says McLauchlin.

Brain freeze is painful because it activates the trigeminal nerve, which stimulates extreme pain. If you’ve ever had a sudden, acute brain freeze, you know how painful it is.

How do you treat brain freeze?

Unlike migraines and other headaches, brain freeze pain usually goes away in 30 seconds or less. But it can also last a few minutes.

The best way to “treat” brain freeze is to stop or reduce the consumption of the trigger. If you have a warm drink handy, that will help it go away faster.

You can also push your tongue to the roof of the mouth, which helps warm the area. You can cover your mouth and nose with your hands and breathe rapidly to increase the flow of warm air to the palate.

Do migraine sufferers experience brain freeze more often?

Jorge Serrador, a cardio-electronics researcher, published a study in FASEB Journal linking brain freeze and migraine.

Dr. Serrador explains that migraine sufferers are more likely to experience brain freeze after consuming very cold food or drink. Some of what happens during brain freeze may be similar to what happens during migraines and other headaches, including traumatic brain injuries.

Serrador theorized that other types of headaches may be caused by localized changes in brain blood flow. If this finding is confirmed in additional research, new medications that inhibit or reverse vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels) may be developed to help treat headaches.

He said, “The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time. It’s fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm.”

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