We’ve all been there before — digging into that delicious, mouthwatering ice cream cone when all of the sudden, a sharp pain pierces your forehead. The dreaded phenomenon knows as “brain freeze” hits us all eventually, turning one of our most beloved indulgences into a momentary nightmare. But, do you know what’s really going on here, and most importantly — how can you prevent it?
Brain Freeze is also known as an “ice cream headache”, or by its mouthful of a technical name: sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. The latter (not-so-simply) means nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion, which is a collection of nerves in the roof of the mouth. The International Classification of Headache Disorders also labeled the sensation as a “cold stimulus headache”, which is defined as a headache that occurs when a cold stimulus is applied to the head or mouth, which is resolved once the stimulus is removed.
So, what’s really going on here? When the nerves in the roof of the mouth are stimulated by a sudden, intense cold — such as from ice cream — the blood vessels contract. To combat this, the body sends a rush of warm blood to the brain to help relieve the cold, which causes the blood vessels to rapidly dilate. This sudden change also triggers pain receptors, which primarily affect the trigeminal nerve. This is the nerve that helps cause sensation in the face and forehead, which is why people tend to feel brain freeze in these areas.
It’s important to understand that the brain isn’t actually being harmed by this reaction. It’s simply because the nerves in the mouth and face are receiving a pain response due to the rapid constriction and dilation of blood vessels in the roof of the mouth that it feels like a sharp, intense headache. Thankfully, these episodes are short-lasting and resolve once the upper palate warms back up again. You can help it along by sticking your tongue to the roof of your mouth, or by sipping on warm water. If you’re particularly prone to brain freeze, you’ll also want to consider eating cold foods more slowly or holding them in the front of your mouth for a moment before swallowing. This may warm the food enough to not cause a painful reaction.
Now that the weather is warming up, you may find yourself face-to-face with brain freeze as you take your first bites of ice cream this season. Although it’s unpleasant, it’ll pass quickly and won’t cause any lasting damage or side effects. Just be sure to pace yourself, and you should be all set!