Doctors give scoop on the brain freeze
There’s nothing sweet about the hurt inflicted when we scarf down a cold treat too quickly, causing brain freeze.
We clutch our heads. We squeeze our eyes shut and wait for what seems like an eternity for that burst of pain behind our eyes to subside.
When it does, we take another bite.
“The thinking is when this super cold ice cream hits the roof of your mouth, your body’s initial reaction is that the blood vessels there constrict,” explained Dr. Jessica Heiring, an expert in headache and migraine management at the Minneapolis Clinic of Neurology in Minneapolis.
It’s a shock to the system similar to putting your hand on a hot stove. But unlike with the stove, the body can’t escape danger simply by pulling away. So it rushes blood flow to the area to try to warm it up.
Meanwhile, the nerves that run alongside your blood vessels near the roof of your mouth sense the neighboring blood vessels are shrinking and dilating. Then they, too, react.
“When the vessels shrink and dilate like that, the nerves next to it try to send signals up to your brain saying the vessels are really dilating — something’s happening inside our mouths,” Heiring said.
But the brain misinterprets the location of the pain. That’s because those nerve signals from your mouth reach a large nerve center in your brain, where more of the input received comes from nerves in the face. And for that split second, the brain thinks the low temperature in your mouth is also in your face.
This produces a “referred pain,” explained Dr. Rohan Lall, a neurologist with Fairview Southdale in Edina. Seconds later, the brain sorts it all out and realizes the extreme cold and dilating blood vessels are merely inside your mouth.
“The blood gets there, the nerves stop firing, and everything returns to its normal, happy place,” Heiring said.
So what’s a Rocky Road-loving person to do? Some people swear by this trick: Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth when you start to get a brain freeze.
“Because your tongue has a lot of good flow, it can warm up the palate quicker,” Heiring said. “Also, drinking something warmer right away would help.”
That’s why people who drink coffee with their ice cream are less prone to brain freeze, she said.
Another approach is to (sigh) eat more slowly.
And if you’re devouring a root bear float or a malt, use a spoon instead of a straw. That minimizes the chance of the cold liquid hitting the roof of your mouth, Heiring said.
“A quick temperature change — that’s the trigger for all of this,” she said.