What Causes Brain Freeze?

August 21, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Regina Krel, M.D. contributes to topics such as Neurology.

By: Katie Woehnker

It’s a hot summer day and you’re cooling down with an ice pop when it hits you, that cold burn – brain freeze. Time seems to stand still and that sweet mango pop went from a delicious treat to a searing headache, but why?

We connected with Regina Krel, M.D., director of the Headache Center at Hackensack University Medical Center to figure out how and why an icy treat can cause this unexpected pain.

What causes brain freeze?

Brain freeze, often referred to as an ice cream headache or medically known as a sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, happens when the cold hits the roof of your mouth or back of your throat, changing the temperature.

It’s thought that the pain of brain freeze is caused by the triggering of the trigeminal nerve – this nerve carries sensory information from your face and around your head to your brain.

Once activated, the blood vessels constrict from the cooling. To adjust to the drastic temperature change, your body sends more blood to warm the affected area, causing the blood vessels to swell. It’s believed that “brain freeze” pain is caused by the constriction and then rush of blood.

“Brain freeze is essentially a headache, one that comes on quick and dissipates just as fast,” shares Dr. Krel.

Is it true that some people don’t get brain freeze?

“Although everyone has a trigeminal nerve, not everyone experiences brain freeze. It’s thought that perhaps some people’s nerves may be more sensitive than others,” adds Dr. Krel. “In fact, those who experience brain freeze can also be more likely to experience migraines.”

One study found that women who had experienced migraines, were twice as likely to experience brain freeze, compared to women who had never suffered a migraine.

How can we prevent brain freeze and eat ice cream in peace?

“For a typical brain freeze, it will go away in less than 30 seconds or so, professional care is not needed. You can either wait a few seconds for it to clear up on its own or push your tongue to the roof of your mouth. Your tongue will help re-regulate your mouth to be warmer,” advises Dr. Krel.

“It’s the brain’s job to control the temperature of your body, so brain freeze is essentially your brain’s way of signaling to slow down,” adds Dr. Krel. “If you experience brain freeze often, try eating a little slower or have warm water on standby to drink.”

When to See a Doctor

As previously mentioned, brain freeze usually goes away pretty quickly, but severe headaches can be a sign of something more serious. If you’re experiencing what some refer to as, “the worst headache you’ve ever head,” vision loss, dizziness, difficulty moving or speaking, seek immediate emergency care.

“My rule of thumb is – if you’re experiencing headaches and taking pain medication multiple times a week, or it’s interfering with your quality of life – consult with a headache medicine specialist. You don’t have to live in pain. A trained neurologist will seek to pinpoint the cause of your headache, and find a proper treatment plan to get the pain under control,” Dr. Krel shares.

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