Brain freeze is the price we pay for greedily gobbling down that ice cream or slurry! This sudden headache can hit you quick and hard and vanish just as rapidly minutes later. If you love your cool treats but are wary of the attendant pain of this cold-stimulus headache, here’s some insight on what causes brain freeze and what you can do to avoid or get rid of it.
Brain Freeze: A Cold-Induced Headache That Affects Your SPG Nerves
While certain factors like being migraine prone or a parental history of cold- stimulus headaches can put you at risk, brain freeze pain also occurs in 30 to 40 percent of those who aren’t otherwise prone to headaches.1
Brain freeze, ice-cream headache, or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia is a cold-induced or cold-stimulus headache. Sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG) is a group of nerve cells connected to the trigeminal nerve, which is central to headaches. This cluster of nerves is found behind your nose and is responsible for transmitting information on sensations like pain. It is also involved in functions like nasal congestion and tearing up.2 When you have something cold, it touches the back of your throat and the roof of your mouth, causing tiny blood vessels in the region to suddenly constrict and then to dilate equally rapidly a little later. The discomfort sensed by pain receptors in the area causes the message of pain to be sent via the bundle of nerves to the trigeminal nerve and on to the brain. The pain sensation due to the cold stimulus is interpreted as being from the head instead of the mouth by your brain – something known as referred pain. The result is a brain freeze or an ice-cream headache.3
Brain freeze headaches tend to be bilateral in most cases – meaning you will feel the pain on both sides of your head.4 If, however, you tend to have migraines on one side of your head, your ice-cream headache may also be unilateral.5
Quick Ingestion Of Cold Stuff Can Also Be A Trigger
The speed at which you consume certain foods may also make a difference. For instance, if you drink/eat something like a crushed ice slurry very quickly, you are more likely to have a problem. Ice creams, on the other hand, produce mixed results. While some people say they experience brain freeze even when they eat it slowly, there are studies and surveys that have found that the cold stimulation of your palate while eating ice cream really fast is twice as likely to cause an ice cream headache.6
Migraines And Family History Make You More Prone To Brain Freeze
The migraine connect: If you are already migraine-prone, you could be more likely to have ice-cream headaches or brain freeze. One study of migraine sufferers found that 47.9 percent of them tested positive on the ice-induced headache test.7 Another piece of research found that women who were active migraine sufferers, with at least one attack in the preceding year, were twice as more likely to have a cold stimulus headache than those who had never experienced a migraine.8
Family history and brain freeze risk: Your family history could play a role in whether or not that iced drink or frozen treat brings on a searing pain. One study found that children who had a parent with a history of having ice-cream headaches were more susceptible to developing the problem themselves. Conversely, in cases where neither the mother nor the father had ice cream headaches, the child’s own risk of having brain freeze was lower.9
So how do you deal with brain freeze when it does strike?
Wait For It to Pass: Brain Freeze Usually Goes Away On Its Own!
Not much is known about treatment for brain freeze because this kind of headache or pain usually sets in quickly and resolves just as fast. And that’s why scientific study on the subject is limited. Typically, once the cold stimulus is removed, you should find the pain and headache subside in about 10 minutes.10 So your best bet is to simply wait it out.
But what if the pain is intense and you just have to try something? Here’s what we’d suggest!
Press Your Tongue To The Roof Of Your Mouth
Brain freeze is linked to the cooling down of your palate and roof and rear of your mouth. So by counteracting the cooling with warmth, you may be able to ease the pain. An easy and effective way to do this is to simply press your curled tongue to the underside of the roof of your mouth. Its warmth should help ease the problem a little or resolve it faster. As the warmth passes from your tongue to your palate, which in turn transmits it to the bundle of nerves behind it, you should feel better. Keep your tongue in place as long as you need to, to find relief.11
Drink Something Warm
If the brain freeze is getting to you, quickly sip on something warm or eat something that’s warm. This should help warm up that palate and your mouth enough to hasten the exit of the headache and any pain.
Have Your Iced Treats Slow And Steady
A tried and tested way to avoid getting too many ice-cream headaches is to pace yourself when you are having something very cold. Since the problem is sometimes triggered by rapid ingestion of cold food and drink, giving yourself breathers between bites or sips or eating gently (as opposed to that hasty gobble) may help. You will need to see what works best for you. Of course, if the food is extremely cold or icy, even slow ingestion may not always work, but it is worth a try!
|↑1, ↑3, ↑11||What causes ice cream headache?. Harvard Health Publishing.|
|↑2||Sphenopalatine Ganglion Blocks in Headache Disorders. American Migraine Foundation.|
|↑4, ↑7||de Oliveira, Daniella A., and Marcelo M. Valença. “The characteristics of head pain in response to an experimental cold stimulus to the palate: An observational study of 414 volunteers.” Cephalalgia 32, no. 15 (2012): 1123-1130.|
|↑5, ↑10||Headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus. International Headache Society.|
|↑6||Kaczorowski, Maya, and Janusz Kaczorowski. “Ice cream evoked headaches (ICE-H) study: randomised trial of accelerated versus cautious ice cream eating regimen.” BMJ 325, no. 7378 (2002): 1445-1446.|
|↑8||Mattsson, Peter. “Headache caused by drinking cold water is common and related to active migraine.” Cephalalgia 21, no. 3 (2001): 230-235.|
|↑9||Zierz, Antonia Maria, Theresa Mehl, Torsten Kraya, Andreas Wienke, and Stephan Zierz. “Ice cream headache in students and family history of headache: a cross-sectional epidemiological study.” Journal of neurology 263, no. 6 (2016): 1106-1110.|