What causes brain freeze? It’s a shock to the sys­tem

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Al­lie Sha

We all scream for ice cream, but some­times snarf­ing down a cold treat in a hurry makes us scream.

We clutch our heads. We squeeze our eyes shut and wait for what seems like an eter­nity for that sud­den burst of pain be­hind our eyes to sub­side. Then when all is well again, we take an­other bite.

We asked doc­tors to break down the bi­o­log­i­cal chain re­ac­tion be­hind an ice cream headache — or brain freeze, as some folks call it.

The trig­ger, of course, is the cold. Then things start to snow­ball.

“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.

It’s a shock to your sys­tem sim­i­lar to putting your hand on a hot stove. Your body senses some­thing has gone awry, but un­like with the stove, it can’t solve the prob­lem 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 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 cold tem­per­a­ture pain in your mouth is also in your face.

This pro­duces a “re­ferred pain,” ex­plained Dr. Ro­han Lall, a neu­rol­o­gist with Fairview South­dale in Ed­ina, Minn. Sec­onds later, the brain sorts it all out and re­al­izes the ex­treme cold and di­lat­ing blood ves­sels are ac­tu­ally in­side your mouth.

“The blood gets there, the nerves stop fir­ing, and ev­ery­thing re­turns to its nor­mal, happy place,” Heir­ing said.

How bad and how long the hurt lasts varies from per­son to per­son. Some peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence blind­ing pain that stops them in their tracks for min­utes on end.

But most peo­ple feel the burn for just a few sec­onds, Lall said.

There are also those rare, hardy souls who have never had an ice cream headache.

“Some may never feel that sen­sa­tion in their life,” Lall said, “and for oth­ers, every time they have ice cream, they feel it.”

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 go slow and eat a smaller amount at a time. A large mouth­ful of ice cream in­creases your chance that the cold stuff will hit your palate and shock your body.

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.


Place your tongue on the roof of your mouth when you start to get a brain freeze.

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