I scream. You scream. We all scream for ice cream. How about when that spoonful of ice cream or big draw of a shake through the straw ends with the feeling of a knife stabbing the brain.
Brain freeze. Aka cranial cramp, ice cream headache or cold rush. It is a recognized medical condition referred to as cold-stimulus headache. Want to impress your friends? The medical term is spenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.
One theory is, when the roof of the mouth comes into contact with something very cold for more than a few seconds, a nerve reaction appears to cause blood vessels to constrict and then rapidly dilate. The pain moves from the palate to the brain and can be intense until the roof of the mouth is warm again. It is a referred pain because the brain perceives the pain in the forehead or temples instead of the mouth. This is similar to the referred pain of a heart attack. The pain is felt in the arm or jaw instead of the heart.
There are ways to avoid an ice cream headache. The most obvious way to prevent one is to eat slower. Use a spoon instead of a straw. If you use a straw, use a smaller one or aim it toward the front or side of your mouth, not directly onto your palate.
That’s all good, but what if you already have one? How do you make it stop? Press your tongue against the roof of your mouth. The heat and pressure may be enough. Pressing your thumb against the palate may also help. Have a sip of warm or even room temperature water. That will stabilize the temperature. Cold-induced headaches seldom last more than 30 seconds, but on rare occasions, they have lasted up to 10-15 minutes.
Humans may not be alone in experiencing brain freezes. There are videos all over showing what appears as a reaction to a brain freeze headache in pets while eating ice cream.
What good can come of this?
Researchers are using cold-stimulus headaches to study migraines. Previous studies on migraines have limitations because researchers and participants can’t wait around the testing facilities for a migraine to appear. There have also been antidotal reports of people who, while experiencing a migraine, will purposely induce a brain freeze to diminish and shorten the migraine headache itself.
Recent studies have studied headaches in the lab by purposefully inducing brain freeze headaches. This allows researchers to study the headaches from start to finish. In one study, participants sipped ice water through a straw pressed against their upper palate to bring in the brain freeze. Scientists monitored the participants throughout the procedure with a Doppler. [A Doppler ultrasound is a noninvasive test that can be used to estimate the blood flow through your blood vessels by bouncing high-frequency sound waves (ultrasound) off circulating red blood cells. It can estimate how fast blood flows by measuring the rate of change in its pitch (frequency).]
With that, they found that pain started when the artery dilated. They speculate that due to the closed structure of the brain, the rapid dilation and influx of blood increases pressure and causes pain. It is possible similar changes in blood flow may be responsible for migraine pain. They are looking at treatment methods that control the blood flow for treating migraine headaches.
That is not a study I would volunteer for.