Brain Freeze, a.ka. the ice cream headache, is a common type of head pain. Most of us know to expect this familiar stabbing sensation a few seconds after quickly ingesting large amounts of a cold treat. You know this, yet you don’t let this stop you from living your life— you eat ice cream the only way you know how: rapidly and without qualms.
For those of you with table manners and unfamiliar with this sensation, pain from brain freeze is usually strongest about a minute after putting said cold thing into your mouth. You can usually feel the sharp, stabby pain around your forehead, eyes and maybe close to your ears, and it usually goes away within 20 seconds.
But what causes this super intense, short-lived pain? No, your brain is not actually freezing, nor is it punishing you for consuming empty, sugar-filled calories (yum!).
It has to do with cold substances coming into contact with the roof of your mouth. Scientists aren’t 100% sure how this translates into brain freeze pain, but they think that this rapid change in temperature from warm to sudden cold triggers temperature-sensitive nerves within the roof of your mouth, which can signal your brain. The cold also causes the blood vessels in the roof of your mouth to first shrink then widen, in efforts to pull in more warm blood and re-heat the affected area. The swelling of your blood vessels can trigger pain-sensitive nerves, which also signal your brain. Once activated, these nerve endings are also capable of releasing chemicals that increase your pain sensitivity. Your brain receives all of these signals, and interprets them as pain.
The reason why you feel this pain in your forehead, rather than the roof of your mouth, is because the particular nerve that communicates temperature and pain signals from your mouth to your brain is also responsible for feeling your face. This can trick your brain into thinking that the source of the pain is coming from your face instead of your mouth— a phenomenon called referred pain.
Back in 2012, Harvard researchers threw out a different theory, demonstrating that increased blood flow to the brain could be responsible for brain freeze pain. Researchers measured blood flow to the brain while the subjects sipped ice-water through a straw positioned by the roof of their mouths. They found that the brain’s major artery dilated (or widened) and blood flow increased as subjects experienced brain freeze. This increase in blood flow increases pressure within your skull, causing pain.
Why on earth would it be beneficial for your body to send more blood to your brain after detecting cold? This increase in blood flow could potentially serve as a means to protect the brain from drastic decreases in temperature. Remember, as far as organs go, the brain is pretty important, and your body is programmed to protect it from potentially dangerous things like temperature fluctuations.
To prevent brain freeze (or as the scientists say, sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia), simply eat cold things slower. Or not, since the whole thing goes away a few second later. Keep doing what you’re doing—your enthusiasm for chilled desserts is beautiful.
By Aggie Mika