- Written by Nancy J. Schaaf, RN Nancy J. Schaaf, RN
It’s summer. Have you had your brain freeze yet?
There’s nothing better than a bowl of ice cream on a hot day, except when you’re too eager to gulp it down, and suddenly your head feels like it’s on fire.
July, named National Ice Cream Month, gives us the perfect opportunity to eat as much ice cream as our hearts desire. But unfortunately, many of us will experience “brain freeze” as we sample the numerous ice cream flavors.
Brain freeze, one of the most mind-numbing types of headache, is associated with one of the best desserts ever created. Ice cream is the No. 1 offender; over 30% of the people who consume ice cream regularly experience brain freeze headaches.
An ice cream headache is almost always intense, short-lasting, and stabbing. This short-term sensation is typically linked to the rapid consumption of ice cream, ice pops, or icy-cold drinks.
Most of us have experienced weird and brief headaches from consuming cold beverages and foods at least once in our lifetimes. Over the last few decades, the rising popularity of ice cream caused more cases of brain freeze or “ice-cream headache.”
While the pain associated with cold desserts has been well known for quite some time, it was not until 1988 that the International Headache Society formally recognized the condition, which they referred to as “cold-stimulus headache.”
Because cold-stimulus headaches are so often associated with the roof of the mouth, their scientific name is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. This term means “nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion,” a bundle of nerves that transmits sensations from the top of the mouth to the brain.
These nerves, located behind the nose, are highly sensitive to temperature to protect the brain. Brain freeze is our body’s reaction to eating too-cold foods; these instantaneous headaches are a natural body reflex to temperature changes.
So, when we put something icy in our mouth, our body’s first response is to warm back up, starting a flow of reactions involved in brain freeze.
Temperature sensors in that region send an instant danger response to the brain. The brain promptly reacts by ordering blood vessels in the head regions to contract, regulating blood flow and prolonging survival of the brain in the cold environment.
After several seconds, when our body is reassured the temperature change was not permanent, blood vessels dilate, which causes a rush of blood to the brain. The complete process lasts only several seconds.
The cure for brain freeze is simple: The moment you start to experience a brain freeze, press the tongue to the roof of the mouth.
The heat from the tongue will transfer heat to the sinuses behind the nose, which will warm the nerve bundles that cause brain freeze. Keep the tongue firmly against the roof of the mouth until the pain starts to dissipate.
Can we prevent brain freeze? Because it occurs when something icy-cold touches the upper palate, we can avoid some of the foods and drinks that are common causes of the sensation, such as ice cream, ice water, slushies, and popsicles. But, for many, these sweet treats are not so easy to give up.
There is no cure for this condition except the recommendation that those susceptible to brain freeze should eat slowly and try not to agitate temperature sensors on the roof of the mouth. Doing this may reduce the risk of developing brain freeze.
We can also prevent brain freeze by taking a sip of a warmer beverage immediately before and after the cold drink or food, thereby keeping the nerves warm.
Brain freeze is not dangerous. Indeed, it is uncomfortable, but perhaps not enough to deny ourselves the pleasure of ice cream.
Give these techniques a try while enjoying a scoop of ice cream. We might be able to stop brain freeze right away and enjoy that tasty treat.