Brain Freeze - Ice Cream Headache

Girl with Brain Freeze

Many people around the world have at least once in their lifetime experience weird and brief headaches that are connected with the consumption of cold beverages and foods. In the past 50 years, sudden popularity rise of ice cream caused spreading of this condition, popularizing it as the “brain freeze” or “ice-cream headache”. Its popularity reached such levels that a popular cold drink manufacturer 7-Eleven trademarked the term and used it in its marketing campaigns.

But how can we explain this unexpected event? How can cold soda, ice cream or any other cold food cause such an intensive pain which disappears few seconds later leaving no traces? Modern medicine explored this interesting condition, searching for the clues in the metabolic processes that are centered in our mouth and brain. After many years of curious investigation, answers are finally here.

Over 30% of the people who consume ice cream (and ice cream is according to scientists, number one offender!) can regularly experience “brain freeze” headaches. So far they did not discover why some people are susceptible to this condition and some are not, but at least we know why this is happening. The cause of these instantaneous headaches is a natural body reflex which is confused in the times of the sudden temperature changes. To be more precise, our brain monitors the temperature of our body with many neural sensors, always trying to protect us from harm and give us precious time to react to sudden changes. One of those sensors is located in the roof of our mouth (palate), and it is the prime reason why we can experience Brain Freeze.

When cold beverage, food or most commonly ice cream suddenly touches the roof of our mouth, temperature sensors in that region send instantaneous danger response to the brain, which immediately reacts with more force than necessary. Thinking that our entire body is in danger, brain orders blood vessels in the head regions to contracts, enabling regulation of the blood flow and longer survival of the brain in the cold environment. After several seconds when our body is reassured that temperature change was not something permanent, blood vessels dilate which causes rush of blood to the brain. That sudden blood rush causes headaches. Entire process lasts only several seconds, and is most apparent with cold ice cream , especially when we eat it faster (which can be most commonly be seen with children who want to enjoy their cold treats as fast as possible). According to some tests Brain Freeze headaches usually last few seconds, but some people feel them up to five minutes long.

There is no cure for this condition except the recommendation that if you are susceptible to brain freezes, you must always eat slower and try not to agitate temperature sensors in the roof of your mouth.