The science behind what causes the brain to freeze and how to stop it

Have you ever had an enthusiastic sip of a slushy drink or a huge bite of a popsicle, before suddenly moaning in pain with excruciating pain on the front of your head? Whether you call it “brain freeze” or “an ice cream headache”, the watery pain you feel after eating or drinking from the cold really hurts. But then as quickly as the sensation arrives, it disappears. So, what causes the brain to freeze, and is there a way to prevent or lessen the discomfort?

What is brain freeze?

Brain freeze, or to call it by its scientific name “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia” (try saying that with a bite of ice cream), is the severe pain you feel in your head shortly after eating or drinking anything. something cold, like a popsicle, ice cream or a soft drink. Some people even experience this sensation when exposed to cold air.

It is certainly not all in the mind, for the International classification of headaches (ICHD-3) recognizes it as a “Headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus”.

It should not be confused with the pain felt by sensitive teeth.

What does brain freeze look like?

In sensitive people, it will look like a sharp, throbbing pain that comes from the front or sides of the head. But rest assured: the feeling should go away quickly.

What causes the brain to freeze?

Scientists are undecided, but one theory is that the cold substance stimulates the sphenopalatine ganglion, a group of nerves at the back of the palate that we perceive as pain. The other theory is that it is caused when the blood vessels in the roof of the mouth and in the sinuses quickly constrict due to the drop in temperature in the mouth, before dilating again.

In a small study published in 2012 in The FASEB Journal, 13 volunteers were connected to non-invasive equipment that analyzed blood flow in the arteries of the brain. They then sipped ice water through a straw in contact with their soft palates, until they felt the familiar freezing sensation. Their blood flow, blood pressure and heart rate were analyzed before, during and after the onset of pain.

Researchers found that drinking ice-cold water increased blood flow to some of the brain’s blood vessels, suggesting that when you feel a brain freeze, you can feel your brain reacting to the cold.

The brain itself cannot feel pain because it does not contain nociceptors – the nerve fibers found in the skin, muscles, joints, and some organs that transmit pain signals. Since there are no nociceptors in the brain, surgeons can operate on the organ without causing pain to the patient.

But there is a layer of protective tissue between the brain and the skull called the dura and the pia which contains nociceptors. These can be activated by certain chemicals or changes in blood flow, which can lead to pain.

Tension headaches, on the other hand, are usually caused by excessive tension in the muscles of the neck and scalp.

Brain freeze can strike when you eat ice cream too quickly © Getty Images

Who gets the brain freeze?

Brain freezing is little studied. There isn’t a lot of funding for research into severe headaches, let alone less annoying problems like brain freezing. However, brain freezing appears to be common in the general population and may be even more likely to occur in people with migraine headaches.

“The brain of the person with migraine is more sensitive to sensory stimuli, so we often find that people with migraine can be triggered by anything more easily and therefore ice cream or a cold shock can cause more problems. “, explains headache specialist Dr Katy. Munro. “Interestingly, however, some of our migraine patients report that ice packs to the head, cold showers, or a swim in cold water are helpful. “

Learn more about migraines:

Is brain freezing dangerous?

Although brain freezing can be painful, you don’t need to call 999 as it is not a cause for concern and will not cause any harm. Your pride, however, when you lean over the table, clasp your head in your hands and moan, is not that easy to mend.

How can I prevent the brain from freezing?

There appears to be a link between the speed of eating and the incidence of brain freezing. In a study published in 2002 in the BMJ, 145 middle school students in Canada were divided into two groups, where one group was asked to eat 100ml of ice cream in over 30 seconds, while the other group was to eat 100ml of ice cream in less than five seconds. The researchers found that 20 of 73 students in the Fast Eaters group had suffered a brain freeze, while only 9 of 72 students in the Safe Eaters group had.

Although scientists admit the study was not perfect, they nonetheless believe it provides good evidence that swallowing ice cream can double the risk of brain freezing.

So taking big bites of ice cream or a huge sip of a slushy drink is a risky business if you’re prone to brain freeze. The best thing to do is take smaller bites or sips… and if your self-control is too weak to do so, then avoid cold foods altogether! Still, because the pain is so fleeting, we think the deliciousness of a huge scoop of ice cream (our favorite is the mint chocolate chips) is worth it.

How can I cure brain freeze?

Since the pain does not last long, there is no point in reaching for the pain relievers as the sensation will have passed by the time the medication takes effect. The best thing to do is spit out the offending food (if you’re in company!) And try to warm the palate of your mouth as quickly as possible, either by pressing your tongue against your palate or by taking a sip from a hot beverage.

Learn more about the brain:

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