The Science of Brain Freeze




Neuroscience and Neurology CategoryHave you ever experienced a freezing sensation after eating an ice cream cone? You’re with a group of friends eating the dessert, and suddenly you have a severe headache that lasts for a brief amount of time. You’re not alone because billions of individuals have endured this common reaction called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. It’s also known as brain freeze or ice cream evoked headache. Why does even the simplest discomfort get a scientific name? But in all seriousness, what exactly happens to the body when one experiences a brain freeze?

Diagnosis: Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia

Ice Cream SundaeSymptoms: Head pain, sharp freezing sensation, toothaches

Causes: Consumption of ice cream, popsicles and other icy treats

Treatment: Drink warm fluids or wait (self-limiting)

Prevention: Eat cold foods at a slower pace!

There are two possible explanations behind pain and its association with a quick, big gulp of slushies, slurpees or Italian ice.

1) Blood vessel phenomenon: It is known that blood vessels constrict when the body experiences cold temperature and dilates when in hot temperature. This simple fact can be applied to the biological cause of brain freeze. Upon contact with ice, the blood vessels in the roof of the mouth begin to constrict, making the vessels in the head to expand, and thus creating a headache.

2) Trigeminal nerve factor: The trigeminal nerve is primarily responsible for the sensation of the face, also known as the fifth cranial nerve (CN-V). As a result of eating cold foods, the trigeminal nerve in the palate of the mouth becomes overstimulated. Stimulation of the nerve causes neurons to fire pain signals to the brain, producing a headache.

Brain freeze is one of those common occurrences that bring the curiosity out of us. Curiosity stems from human nature. What other topics have made you ask, why and how?

Reference

Kaczorowski, M. (2002). Ice cream evoked headaches (ICE-H) study: randomised trial of accelerated versus cautious ice cream eating regimen. BMJ, 325(7378), 1445-1446. DOI: 10.1136/bmj.325.7378.1445

  • Em

    So, can you get brain freeze from breathing in exceptionally cold air? Say, below -20 F? I swear this happened to me once last winter.

    • I.V.

      Yeah, the same thing happens to me, except it happens frequently.

  • Anonymous

    i always believed it was the cold hitting the stomach, which sent signals to your brain stating that the stomach may be in pain, caused by the coldness

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  • Mike Jackson

    I have my own remedy for brain freeze – based on the “blood vessel phenomenon”, except what I was told that it’s your carotid (neck) arteries that are the dilating culprits so I warm my neck with my palms when it happens. Seems to work.

  • Qwerty

    You can also put your tongue on the roof of your mouth. That seems to help fix it for me.

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  • Nathan

    From Wikipedia:

    “A brain freeze is caused when something very cold, like ice cream, touches the top palate in your mouth. The blood vessels constrict due to the cold. As the palate warms, the blood vessels suddenly enlarge and the blood rushes back to the blood vessels. The nerves in this area send a signal for pain to the front of the brain, resulting in a brief but intense headache.”

  • Mike Jackson

    To clarify – the carotid artery theory is based on the idea that ,as those arteries contract from cooling, the blood pressure in your brain increases and that’s what causes the pain, not some strange nerve signal from your palate. As a surfer i have also experienced an “ice cream headache (brain freeze, same thing)” merely from having my head submerged in cold water while holding my breath with a closed mouth. This would seem to discount the theory that the cooling of the palate is what causes the headache.

  • Cheryl

    Study of anatomy will prove that the carotid artery therory doesnt hold water, the artery inst close enough to the throat, really it isnt, I know it looks like it is but its not, to cool the blood down significatly enough to also cool the brain. The artery is warm, the blood is warm, the throat is warm, the esophagus is warm, so how can something get the esophagus so cold that the throat gets so cold that the artery gets soo cold, that the blood gets soooo cold that the brain freezes? Its a stretch.
    It also cant be the cold food in the stomach for the same reason, our b ody warms food up (or cools it down) before it gets to the stomach.
    Try an experiment, put an ice pack on the side of your throat, do you get a brain freeze? Now hold an ice cube on the roof of your mouth, do you get a brain freeze?
    You be the judge
    As forthe head being sumerged in cold water, again look at the anatomy involved, we have loads of nerves just under the scalp on our heads, and loads of blood vessals, that is why a head injury, even a small one, bleeds so much. Your head being in the cold water so long encourages those lood vessels to contract, causing the pain. Not your artery, if your blood (from the artery) to your brain got that cold, you would have a bigger problem thana headache.

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  • http://wanyin.bravejournal.com John Gunn

    I have it referred to as spheno palatine ganglia neuralgia. At least I think that was how it was spelt.

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  • Emchiro

    is it the same as when you dive into a pool on a winter evening and some water enters your nostrils and cause a headache?

    ‘Bout the carotid artery theory, the theory does not fit with PGN.

  • ebi

    y do v get toothache????????

  • cyndi

    Ihave throat freezes when i eat ice cream or drink slushies. I use to get brain freeze. Just wondering why ?

  • Kas

    http://www.detoxinabox.com/blog/the-science-of-brain-freeze

    You appear to have been plagiarised… again.

    • http://slakhan.gnif.org Shaheen E Lakhan, MS, MEd, PhD

      Hi Kas,

      Yes, we surely have been plagiarized once again by detoxinabox.com. Finding their hosting provider proved to be difficult, but we’ve sent DMCA notices to the proper entities. Thanks a lot for being on the lookout!

      Sincerely,
      Shaheen

  • http://neuroskeptic.blogspot.com Neuroskeptic

    Ha, this is hilarious…

  • andrew

    I am a surfer looking for a brain freeze solution in cold water. If the blood vessels contract due to the cold water, do you think rubbing my forehead with a muscle relief cream like Deep Heat or Tiger balm will prevent this contraction when my head hits the cold water?

  • colin moran

    can you get a brain freeze from cold water

Waynekid Kam

Waynekid Kam is a Duke University student. He has worked for the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Duke University Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
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