Brain freeze from eating cold food is a common experience. Get some helpful remedies and find out why your ice cream headache may lead to a migraine cure.
You’re enjoying an ice cream, popsicle or frozen drink when suddenly a lightning bolt of severe pain shoots to the top of your head.
Thirty seconds later the pain subsides and you’re back to eating, but a little more cautiously.
You’ve just experienced the weird phenomena known as brain freeze.
At the time you’ve probably wondered …
Why does this happen? Is it dangerous?
Is it a type of migraine headache? What’s the fastest way to make it stop?
Here are the answers to these burning questions and everything else you could ever want to know about brain freeze.
What Is Brain Freeze?
Brain freeze goes by other names — ice cream headache, cold rush, even cranium cramp.
It is also a recognized medical condition referred to as a cold-stimulus headache.
Its scientific name is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia which literally means “pain of the nerve located on the roof of your mouth,” the specific neural structure being the sphenopalatine ganglion.
No one knows for sure what causes it but here are a few possible explanations.
One theory is that when severe cold hits the nerve on the roof of your mouth it causes referred pain. (1)
Referred pain is when the pain occurs in one place in the body but is felt elsewhere.
Another theory is that very cold food temporarily alters blood flow to your brain, causing localized pressure and a brief headache. (2)
Your brain is very delicate and obviously vitally important, so your body will protect it at all costs.
A third theory is that cold-stimulus headaches are a defense mechanism to protect the brain from temperature fluctuations and keep it warm. (3)
According to the Mayo Clinic, people who have suffered a head injury or have migraine headaches are more prone to cold-stimulus headaches. (4)
But one study found the opposite to be true, that migraine sufferers are less likely to experience brain freeze. (5)
Oddly, some people with migraines find that eating ice cream cures their headaches. (6)
This is like a cold rush in reverse. 😉
(I’m one of those people and was happy to learn I wasn’t alone in this paradoxical response.)
Researchers hope that learning more about this relationship between migraines and brain freeze might lead to a cure for migraine headaches. (7)
There’s an interesting side note on how cold induced headaches can help researchers find a migraine cure.
Migraines have always been difficult to study since the onset of a headache is unpredictable.
But researchers can replicate a short-lived migraine in study participants at will by inducing brain freeze.
How to Stop and Avoid Brain Freeze
Scientific studies support what you probably already know, that you can largely avoid brain freeze by eating frozen food s-l-o-w-l-y. (8)
Using a spoon instead of a straw can help.
Drinking through a straw channels the cold liquid directly to the nerve that triggers pain. (9)
If you use a straw, aim it towards the front or side of your mouth, not directly onto your palate.
Cold induced pain rarely lasts more than 30 seconds, but it can last up to a very unpleasant 10-15 minutes.
Next time you get a “cranium cramp,” try one of these methods to stop it in its tracks.
- Spit out the offending food. Not very attractive but neither is your scrunched up brain freeze face.
- Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth. The heat and pressure are sometimes enough to stop the pain.
- Open your mouth and press your thumb on the roof of your mouth to warm it. Note, this is not a good look in public!
- Drink something warm to warm up your palate. It doesn’t have to be scalding hot — even room temperature water can help.
- Open your mouth and cover it with your hand. Then breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose. This will help warm the inside of your mouth.
- Some people get relief simply by tilting their head back for 10 seconds.
8 Fun Facts About Brain Freeze
Here are some interesting facts you can use to impress your friends the next time they get a brain freeze.
Instead of laughing at them.
- Not everyone experiences ice cream headaches. It’s estimated around 30% of ice cream eaters experience it. (10)
- There are no pain receptors in the brain so the pain is not actually in your brain.
- The Slurpee was invented by 7-Eleven, the convenience store chain. They claim to have coined the term “brain freeze.” (11)
- Anecdotally, the worst food for causing brain freeze is a Slurpee or similar frozen drink.
A California State Science Fair project entitled Which Food Substances Produce Brain Freezes Most Often? is available online.
This budding young scientist wanted to know which causes the worse brain freeze — Slurpees or ice cream.
He found that a Slurpee-induced headache starts sooner, lasts longer, and is more intense than an ice cream induced headache.
Scientifically optimized music to help you focus
- Brain freeze fortunately does not freeze your brain cells. But if they ever did freeze, they would be ruptured by ice crystals and turn to mush.
- Frozen foods and drinks probably won’t change the temperature of your brain.
But neurosurgeons often take the brain down as low as 64˚F during surgery. (12)
This stops circulation to the brain allowing surgeons to operate more easily.
- Dogs love ice cream but no one knows for sure if dogs get brain freeze — and they aren’t telling!
But from the reactions some pet owners have observed, it seems likely that they do.
- Most people feel brain freeze pain in the top of their head, forehead, or temples.
But others experience the referred pain in their nose, shoulder, back, or collarbone area.
Brain Freeze: The Bottom Line
Brain freeze is a painful, but harmless temporary condition caused by eating very cold foods and drinks.
You can largely prevent it by consuming frozen foods and drinks slowly.
If you’re prone to cold-stimulus headaches, avoid drinking frozen drinks through a straw.
Next time you experience it, try one of the various tactics listed above to warm your mouth instead of riding out the pain.
Researchers hope that learning more about brain freeze might lead to a cure for migraine headaches.