What Causes Brain Freeze?July 9, 2020 - Katie McCallum
Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia: You've probably never heard of it, but there's a good chance you've experienced it.
It's hot outside, you're sweating, the slushie in your hand is delightfully cold. You take a big sip, only to regret it immediately. A sharp pain begins radiating through your brain and every part of your face clenches. You squeeze your eyes together. You squint your nose upwards. You pinch the skin on your forehead together. And, just as quickly as the pain comes, it goes.
You've just experienced "brain freeze" — that throbbing pain you feel in your forehead or temples after drinking or eating something way too cold, way too quickly. But why does shocking your mouth with something cold cause pain in your forehead? And is there anything you can do to prevent it?
Why do brain freezes happen?
While the pain typically only lasts about 30 seconds, brain freeze is actually a type of headache, believe it or not.
Theories abound as to what's happening during a cold-stimulus headache, which is more colloquially called an "ice-cream headache." One of the leading theories surrounding brain freeze involves how your blood vessels and nerves react to rapid shifts in temperature.
When you take a big sip of your slushie, the roof and back of your mouth go from their usual temperatures to ones that are much, much colder. In an effort to warm your mouth back up, your brain sends blood — and plenty of it. This rush of blood requires blood vessels in the surrounding area to rapidly expand, which, in turn, initiates signals of pain. But why do you ultimately feel the pain in your forehead and not your mouth?
It's thought that one of the most complex nerves in your brain, the trigeminal nerve, gets triggered during a brain freeze. Among other things, your trigeminal nerve controls sensation (including pain) in your face. When this nerve is triggered during a brain freeze, a phenomenon called "referred pain" occurs — where the place you feel the pain isn't actually where the pain signal originated. In this case, although it's still unclear why, your trigeminal nerve reads the pain as originating from your forehead and temples instead of your mouth.
Interestingly, only 30% to 40% of people are susceptible to brain freeze. While researchers don't yet understand why, it may indicate that the trigeminal nerve is more sensitive in some people than in others. In addition, some research suggests that migraine sufferers are more susceptible to brain freeze, which, if true, may mean that studying the cause of brain freeze could possibly help uncover information about another equally mysterious type of headache — a migraine.
Tips for relieving brain freeze
Unlike other types of headaches, which last longer and usually require medication or other remedies, treating a brain freeze is as easy as warming back up. In addition, while painful, a brain freeze is actually harmless and isn't anything to alert your doctor about.
If you feel a brain freeze coming on, quickly do one or more of the following:
- Get the cold food or drink out of your mouth
- Take a sip of warm water
- Press and hold your tongue against the roof of your mouth
While it's sometimes hard to resist slurping your slushie as soon as it's in your hands, avoiding a brain freeze altogether is as easy as enjoying your frozen (or very cold) treat slowly, taking small bites or slurps.