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Brain freeze, also known as ice cream headache or a medical term “phenopalatine ganglioneuralgia”, is a condition where you experience sharp searing pain in your forehead. It can occur a few seconds after exposure to something too cold in your mouth too quickly. However, not everyone gets it, some people can suck down as many milkshakes as they want and never feel a thing. Brain freeze remains a scientific mystery with no exact knowledge of what causes it but there are a few reasons why it happens.

The Theory Behind Brain Freeze

Brain freeze is triggered when a very cold substance, food or air, for example, hits the roof of the mouth or the back of the throat and it causes the blood vessels and nerves to be stimulated on these temperature-sensitive areas. A study presented in 2012, indicated that any sudden increase in blood flow and a resulting increase in the size of the anterior cerebral artery (a blood vessel found in the middle of the brain behind the eyes), could be the cause for brain freeze pain. Another possible way to explain why brain freeze happens is that a cold sensation activates an important nerve in the head and face, called the trigeminal nerve. Whenever the trigeminal nerve is triggered, it causes the blood vessels inside the head to tighten and contract and then rapidly dilate or widen, contributing to a sudden feeling of pain. By removing cold stimulus, the blood vessels go back to their normal size and pain eventually goes away. Despite the name “brain freeze”, this brief cause of head pain doesn’t have permanent damage and isn’t life-threatening.”

The Difference Between Brain Freeze and Other Types of Headaches

Symptoms are what sets them apart. For example, migraines, which are the most common type of headaches, are typically associated with pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and noise, and sometimes blurry vision. These symptoms aren’t present in the case of brain freeze. However, the pathway is similar. The trigeminal nerve is involved in both migraines and brain freeze, but in the case of brain freeze, it’s only triggered by a very fleeting event that fades quickly without any lasting side effects.

Symptoms of Brain Freeze

  • A quick onset of head pain, initiated within 30 to 60 seconds of cold exposure.
  • A pain that goes away a few minutes after it begins
  • Intense, stabbing pain in the forehead and temples

How to Stop/Avoid Brain Freeze

Assuming you have a brain freeze and you want to bring the temperature of your mouth back to normal, here is a proven way to do it. You should press your tongue against the top of your mouth, allowing the heat to transfer into the tissue. Alternatively, drink room temperature water, which serves a similar function. Others suggest that drinking warm water slowly once the pain begins may help short circuit the symptoms of brain freeze. For those prone to this harmless headaches, one way of preventing it is by slowing down when consuming ice-cold foods and drinks and keep cold substances away from your upper palate. However, even if you don’t do any of the above things, brain freeze typically lasts a few minutes, plus it’s not dangerous.

Conclusion

Although rarely, scientists say that continuous exposure to cold food and drinks may sometimes bring Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), a condition that causes the heart rate to suddenly get out of rhythm or is “fluttery”. It’s speculated that your nervous system may be affected by the cold and trigger this reaction. Some people feel it’s a waste of time analyzing brain freeze since it’s harmless, but scientists say that by analyzing it they get to learn more about other headaches. Additionally, by understanding headache mechanisms and extend will help them develop better treatments for patients.

Remember, it’s possible to suffer from a cold stimulus headache in both hot and cold weather, the reason being that the effect relies upon the temperature of the food being consumed rather than that of the environment. If your brain freezes for more than five minutes, either with or without treatment, it’s advisable to see your doctor. Also, you should seek assistance if you experience similar pain or discomfort when you haven’t consumed something cold or been in an extremely cold environment. What’s more, if you’re willing to risk the discomfort, you can continue to enjoy your favorite cold foods and beverages.

All images by Shutterstock

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