How does your brain freeze?

Last summer, my son and I went out for ice cream. It’s something I probably shouldn’t do, since I’m trying to lose weight, but I really love the stuff. So I justified it to myself as an exercise in teaching the concept of “moderation in all things” (really! It was!) and we had ice cream cones. And being 6 (at the time), he ate it really fast. “Brain freeze!” he declared shortly thereafter.

“Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth,” I tell him. Why? Uhm… mostly because my mom told me to do that when you was his age. So I passed it on, even though it really never seems to help. I mean, my mom taught it to me so it must help. Right?

I don’t know if he actually tried. But a minute later, he asks a question: “How does your brain freeze?”

“It doesn’t, really,” I tell him, feeling confident in my answer.

“Then why is it called a brain freeze?” he replied.

Say it with me, everyone: “I… don’t know.”

What is “brain freeze”?

I did a little reading on the subject, and most sources I found were in agreement with the information from the article “Brain freeze: The science behind ice cream headache” on Medical News Today. “Brain freeze” is also known colloquially as “ice cream headache” (the name I always used as a kid) and more formally as “cold stimulus headache” or “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia”.

That’s great, but what is it?

Interestingly, up until 2012, nobody really knew. That’s when one Dr. Jorge Serrador did some research trying to deliberately cause ice cream headaches in volunteers. The results were published in “Cerebral Vascular Blood Flow Changes During ‘Brain Freeze’”, and here’s what the abstract says about it:

Using transcranial Doppler, we evaluated cerebral blood flow velocity (CBFV) in the middle (MCA) and anterior (ACA) cerebral arteries in 13 healthy adults while consuming ice and ambient water. Subjects drank ice water through a straw against the palate until pain developed. CBFV, heart rate, and blood pressure were analyzed, before pain, during pain and after pain.

Consumption of ice water produced a tendency towards increased cerebral flow velocity in the ACA (P=0.078) but not the MCA (P=0.24). Ice water also resulted in greater cerebrovascular resistance during the experimentally induced “brain freeze” when compared to following ambient water consumption.

Our results support a vascular mechanism for brain freeze. Ice water consumption resulted in a significantly greater cerebrovascular resistance as compared to that during ambient water consumption. However, the fact that cerebral flow increased during pain along with increases in blood pressure may suggest autoregulation was not as effective. Supported by NASA and NIH.

Which means?

I couldn’t find the full article to check my interpretation, but Medical News Today and Wikipedia agree that it’s something along the lines of how sinus pressure can cause tooth pain. See, your mouth is full of nerves, and signals can ‘leak’ from one nerve to another (citation: my orthodontist when I was 14 and wearing braces). So the cold liquid or solid you consume causes the blood vessels in the roof of your mouth to construct rapidly. Since this happens rapidly, it causes something called “referred pain“, as the signals telling your brain that your mouth is freezing are carried by the trigeminal nerve, which also happens to sense facial pain. As a result, you feel like you have a headache.

And does that tongue thing your mother recommended actually work?

That’s a definite “maybe”. Most articles recommend gently warming the mouth as a way to deal with the headache, so pressing the underside of your tongue to the roof of your mouth might work – it’ll be based on how much ice cream you ate. Other suggestions include breathing in warm air and placing your hands over your nose and mouth and breathing through your mouth.

Personally, the only cure I’ve ever really found is waiting it out. Or more ice cream, and accepting that you’re just delaying onset.

Interestingly, Wikipedia also states that “Cats and other animals have been observed experiencing a similar reaction when presented with a similar stimulus.” So don’t let your cat gobble down his ice cream too fast.

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