The sudden pain of brain freeze is common, but harmless. Learn why it happens, helpful remedies, and the link between brain freeze and migraine headaches.
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You’re enjoying an ice cream, popsicle, or frozen drink when suddenly a lightning bolt of pain shoots to the top of your head.
A few agonizing seconds later the pain subsides and you’re back to eating, but a little more cautiously.
You’ve just experienced the weird phenomenon known as brain freeze.
After it’s over, you may wonder …
Why does brain freeze happen?
Is it dangerous?
What’s the fastest way to make it stop?
Here are the answers to these burning questions and a few other things you’ve always wanted to know about brain freeze.
What Is Brain Freeze?
Brain freeze is a type of headache triggered by the consumption of very cold foods or drinks.
It’s also called a cold headache or an ice cream headache since eating ice cream is a common trigger, but it can even be caused by drinking ice water. (1)
Cold-stimulus headache is a recognized medical condition listed in the most recent edition of The International Classification of Headache Disorders.
Sometimes it’s called a trigeminal headache referring to the trigeminal nerve, the largest nerve in your brain.
Its scientific name is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia which literally means “pain of the nerve located on the roof of your mouth.”
A brain freeze headache can be extremely painful, but fortunately is short-lived, usually lasting less than 10 seconds and rarely lasting more than 30 seconds.
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What Causes Brain Freeze?
There are several theories about the causes of brain freeze.
It is thought that when severe cold hits the nerve on the roof of your mouth, it causes referred pain.
Referred pain is pain that originates in one place in the body but is felt elsewhere.
Another premise is that very cold food temporarily alters blood flow to your brain, causing localized pressure and a temporary pain. (2)
A final explanation is that cold-stimulus headaches are a defense mechanism to protect the brain from temperature fluctuations and keep it warm.
An Unexpected Link Between Brain Freeze and Migraines
The sphenopalatine ganglion is a group of nerves responsible for painful migraines and cluster headaches. (3)
These nerves are also sensitive to cold and can trigger brain freeze.
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 some research indicates that the opposite may be true, that migraine sufferers are less likely to experience brain freeze. (5)
Oddly, some people with migraines find that eating ice cream can make a headache go away. (6)
(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.
There’s an interesting side note on how cold-induced headaches might help researchers find a migraine cure.
Migraines have always been difficult to study since the onset of a headache is unpredictable.
But now, researchers can replicate a short-lived migraine in study participants on demand by inducing brain freeze. (7)
I can’t imagine too many people signing up for that!
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How to Prevent Brain Freeze
Scientific studies support what you probably already know, that you can largely avoid brain freeze by eating frozen food s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y. (8)
Keeping frozen food towards the front of your mouth and away from the cold-sensitive roof of your mouth can help as well.
If you are drinking super-cold drinks like slushies or milkshakes, use a spoon instead of a straw.
Drinking through a straw channels the cold liquid directly to the nerve that triggers pain.
If you use a straw, aim it towards the front or side of your mouth, rather than the roof of your mouth.
If you are eating ice cream, turn your spoon upside down and lick it off with your tongue.
This helps to keep the ice cream from hitting the nerve bundle on your palate.
And don’t eat ice cream that’s frozen rock-hard.
Let it warm up a bit.
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6 Ways to Stop Brain Freeze
The next time you get a cold headache, try one of these methods to stop it in its tracks.
How to Stop Brain Freeze
- Spit out the offending food. This is 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. Drink something warm to warm up your palate; 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 to 20 seconds.
- Perform the Valsalva maneuver. This is the same maneuver to pop your ears open after you’ve been flying. Close your mouth, pinch your nose shut, and blow air into your nose.
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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. ;)
Brain Freeze Fact #1
Not everyone experiences ice cream headaches.
It’s estimated that only about 30% of ice cream eaters experience them. (9)
Brain Freeze Fact #2
The pain of a cold headache does not actually occur in your brain because your brain has no pain receptors.
Brain Freeze Fact #3
The Slurpee was invented by the convenience store chain 7-Eleven.
They claim to have coined the term “brain freeze.” (10)
Brain Freeze Fact #4
Anecdotally, the worst food for causing brain freeze is a Slurpee or similar frozen drink.
A budding young scientist wanted to know for sure which causes the worse brain freeze, Slurpees or ice cream.
So, he made finding out his California State Science Fair project.
He found that a Slurpee-induced headache starts sooner, lasts longer, and is more intense than an ice cream-induced headache.
Brain Freeze Fact #5
A brain freeze does not freeze your brain cells.
But if they ever did freeze, they would be ruptured by ice crystals and turn to mush.
Brain Freeze Fact #6
Frozen foods and drinks won’t change the temperature of your brain.
But neurosurgeons often cool the brain substantially during brain surgery. (11)
This stops blood circulation to and within the brain, allowing surgeons to operate more easily.
Brain Freeze Fact #7
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.
This applies to cats as well.
Brain Freeze Fact #8
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.
This video from SciShow explains that, since all our sensory organs are situated in close proximity, nerves can sometimes get their wires crossed, causing the referred pain of brain freeze.
Brain Freeze: Take the Next Step
Brain freeze is a painful, but harmless, temporary condition caused by consuming extremely cold foods and drinks.
You can largely prevent it by simply eating frozen foods and drinks slowly or taking measures to keep cold foods and drinks off the roof of your mouth.
And the next time you experience an ice cream headache, try one of the various tactics listed above to quickly warm your mouth, instead of riding out the pain.