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Brain Freeze: The Science Behind Ice Cream Headaches

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Have you ever slurped up ice cream or an icy beverage in a hurry, only to be rewarded with an excruciating headache mere moments later? I’m not a Slurpee fan, but quite a few of my friends succumbed to the dreaded “brain freeze” back in the day after downing them too quickly. The condition is so synonymous with the drink that 7-Eleven actually trademarked the term. 


Brain freeze, also known as ice cream headache, afflicts everybody at some point. But what is it about cold matter in our mouths that causes such severe, yet temporary, headaches? Is there any hope for a brain freeze-less existence? 


Brain Pain Isn’t Just in Our Heads
It seems strange that what starts in the mouth should make the head hurt, but that’s due to a little nerve confusion. When we put something cold in our mouths, like a big spoonful of ice cream or a popsicle, it hits our palates (the technical term for the roof of the mouth). The palate hosts nerve clusters that act as temperature regulators for the brain, sending signals to the brain about changes in body heat. 


As soon as the nerves pick up on the influx of cold, they overreact, anticipating a severe loss in body heat. They signal blood vessels in the brain to contract in order to keep body temperature regulated. Once the temperature in the mouth returns to stasis, palate nerves calm down and tell blood vessels to dilate again, causing a rush of blood to the head—that rush is responsible for the resulting headache. It’s hard to believe all of this could occur in a matter of seconds, since ice cream headaches happen almost immediately after putting something cold in the mouth, but that’s how quickly our bodies react. 


The Facts We Know About the Freeze
In a paper published in the British Medical Journal in 1997, Dr. Joseph Hulihan, a former assistant professor at Temple University’s Health Sciences Center, says that about 30 percent of people have experienced ice cream headaches. In fact, he names ice cream as the number one offender of headache-triggering foods. However, what’s still unclear is whether some people are more susceptible to them than others. For example, migraine sufferers often have episodes triggered by cold temperatures, with the process being the same as that of brain freeze. But a link between migraines and increased likelihood of ice cream headaches hasn’t been proven. 


The one thing that definitely heightens the chance of experiencing brain freeze is eating or drinking something too quickly. A thirteen-year-old trying to figure out why eating ice cream made her head hurt actually performed a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2002 to figure out the phenomenon. She and her dad (an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine at McMaster University) took 145 students and split them in two groups, with one being asked to eat two scoops of ice cream in less than five seconds and the other getting thirty seconds to mostly finish their portions. Twenty-seven percent of the first group got a headache compared to 13 percent in the other. And among all those with headaches, the pain lasted less than 10 seconds for over half of them. 


For Relief, Turn to the Roof of the Cause
The only way to prevent brain freeze is to eat cold things slowly, letting our mouths get used to the temperature instead of shoveling it in. Of course, most of us are more likely to do the latter when it’s hot and we want to cool off. Luckily, the pain passes quickly, with most ice cream headaches lasting thirty seconds to a minute at most, though they can go on as long as five minutes. 


If your head throbbing is too intense to stand, there are a few methods to raise the temperature in your mouth and get rid of the ache. Try putting your tongue against the roof of your mouth to quiet the nerve activity there. Drinking a warm beverage like tea or hot water will have the same effect, perhaps even a bit faster. Anything you can do to make the mouth a hotter environment will stop the headache from progressing. But since they’re momentary events for most of us, it might be best just to wait it out. 


I guess if we really wanted to avoid ice cream headaches for the rest of our lives, we could just give up all things iced, but who wants to live like that? My friend who has a particularly sensitive palate lets his ice cream melt slightly before eating it. Personally, I try to eat slowly and take small bites, a method that tends to fall to the wayside on especially hot days (or when the ice cream’s especially delicious). But when brain freeze hits, at least we can take comfort in knowing our bodies are functioning properly and that the pain will soon subside—so we can dig in and start the process all over again.

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