Brain freeze occurs when the body tries to warm up in response to extreme cold in the mouth or throat. Blood vessels expand for warmth and this sudden change in size can cause discomfort.

Brain freeze refers to when something extremely cold touches the upper palate (roof of the mouth). It typically happens when the weather is very hot, and the individual consumes something cold too fast.

Brain freeze is also known as ice cream headache, cold stimulus headache, and sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. It is a short-term headache typically linked to the rapid consumption of ice cream, ice pops, or very cold drinks.

Harvard Medical School scientists who have investigated the causes of brain freeze, believe that their findings could eventually pave the way to more effective treatments for various types of headaches, such as migraine-related ones, or pain caused by brain injuries.

Fast facts on ice cream headaches

  • The ice-cream headache is also known as a cold-stimulus headache or trigeminal headache.
  • It is thought to be caused by rapid constriction of the blood vessels in the roof of the mouth (palate).
  • Cures commonly involve warming the roof of the mouth to prevent this rapid constriction and relieve the headache.
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It’s not just ice cream; any cold stimulus can cause the nerve pain that results in the sensation of a brain freeze.

Brain freeze is caused by:

  • Cooling of the capillaries of the sinuses by a cold stimulus, which results in vasoconstriction (a narrowing of the blood vessels).
  • A quick rewarming by a warm stimulus such as the air, which results in vasodilation (a widening of the blood vessels).
  • These rapid changes near the sensitive nerves in the palate create the sensation of brain freeze.

The proximity of very sensitive nerves and the extreme stimuli changes are what cause the nerves to react.

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Brain freeze can occur if you eat an ice cream too fast.

Dr. Jorge Serrador, a cardiovascular electronics researcher, highlighted research in The FASEB Journal (April 2012 Issue), which explained that, until now, scientists have not been able to fully understand what causes brain freeze.

Dr. Serrador’s research involved:

  • recruiting 13 healthy adult volunteers
  • asking them to sip ice-cold water through a straw, so that the liquid would hit their upper palate
  • monitoring blood flow in the brain using a transcranial Doppler test

They found that the sensation of brain freeze appears to be caused by a dramatic and sudden increase in blood flow through the brain’s anterior cerebral artery. As soon as the artery constricted, the brain-freeze pain sensation wore off.

The scientists were able to trigger the artery’s constriction by giving the volunteers warm water to drink.

The sensation is not serious, but can be very unpleasant. Brain freeze treatments include:

  • drinking some warm water
  • pushing the tongue to the roof of the mouth, which helps warm the area
  • covering the mouth and nose with the hands and breathing rapidly to increase the flow of warm air to the palate

A preventative cure is reducing the cold stimuli on the palate, which means avoiding large amounts of cold food or drink at once.

Brain freeze and migraine sufferers

Dr. Serrador explains that we already know that migraine sufferers are more likely to suffer brain freeze after consuming very cold food or drink, compared with people who never have migraines.

He suggests that some of what occurs during brain freeze may be similar to what causes migraines, and possibly other kinds of headaches, including those caused by traumatic brain injuries.

Serrador and team believe that local changes in brain blood flow may be causing other types of headaches. If this can be confirmed in further studies, new medications that prevent or reverse vasodilation (widening of the blood vessels) may help treat headaches.

Dr. Serrador said:

“The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time. It’s fairly sensitive to temperature, so vasodilation might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm.”

If dilated arteries cause a sudden rush of blood to the brain, which raises pressure and causes pain, a drug that constricts the blood vessel should reduce pressure and eliminate the pain. Also, constricting the blood vessels that supply the brain could help prevent pressure building up dangerously high.

If you’re still wondering about the science behind brain freeze, this video by the SciShow team takes a look at how brain freeze occurs and discusses the quick ways in which to get rid of it.