When Darla from The Little Rascals famously said “he makes me melt like a popsicle on the Fourth of July,” she probably wasn’t thinking about the brief, paralyzing pain that popsicles are capable of inflicting. Yes, I’m talking about brain freeze. It’s a familiar summertime affliction that occurs when you slurp down your ice cream cone with too much gusto. Or, as Dr. Kris Rau, Ph.D. — a pain system researcher and assistant professor at Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine — puts it: “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.” This is a technical term for brain freeze that few outside of the medical community are aware of or can pronounce. Still, just about everyone is familiar with the brief, throbbing phenomenon that occurs when we get an ice cream headache.
What causes brain freeze?
“The trigger of ice cream headaches relates to a cold stimulus,” Rau says. “And it’s not just ice cream, it could be popsicles, milkshakes, anything that’s cold that comes in contact with the roof of your mouth.”
But to truly understand what’s causing your brain freeze, you have to understand the anatomy of the mouth. Inside, it has many blood vessels called capillaries, especially on the top of your mouth called the palate, Rau explains. Embedded in that network of blood vessels, there are thousands of tiny nerves and nerve endings.
When ice cream comes into contact with those blood vessels, they get a cold shock and restrict rapidly. But when you swallow and take away that cold stimulus, your body then triggers another response to dilate those blood vessels, so they open back up . “And so, the rapid change between the constriction and dilation of those blood vessels — that stimulus is then picked up by all of the nerve cells wrapped around them,” Rau explains. “Then, that nerve signal is then sent up to the brain.”
The result: Instant pain.
But why does it feel like your brain is throbbing, and not the inside of your mouth?
“Your brain sometimes has difficulties in trying to figure out where that pain is coming from," Rau says. “Even though the stimulus is in the mouth, our brain interprets that as coming from our forehead. It’s like the referred pain that you may have heard about with heart attacks. It’s not your heart that hurts, it’s your shoulder.”
Is brain freeze dangerous?
Just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. Rau says it’s a common kind of headache, and luckily goes away quickly.
“It’s a normal response that your body has to cold stimulus,” he says. “It’s nothing to be concerned about. It’s obviously very temporary.”
Are some people more likely to get brain freeze than others?
Some research shows that genes could have something to do with it. One study found that there could be a hereditary component, and noted that students whose parents got ice cream headaches were at an increased risk for experiencing them.
Meanwhile, Rau says that people who get migraines are often more likely to feel brain freeze. “They tend to be more sensitive to ice cream headaches,” he says, “but, oddly enough, if you’re currently having a migraine, some anecdotal evidence shows that if you try to give yourself a brain freeze, it can kind of partially reset parts of your nervous system so that your migraines tend to dissipate more rapidly.”
How to get rid of brain freeze.
Although these headaches don’t tend to last long, Rau says there are things you can do to make them go away more quickly. The best way it to rewarm the upper part of the palate. “Drink a warm beverage or warm water,” he says. “Or even just sticking your tongue to the roof of your mouth tends to alleviate the problem much more quickly.”
Finally, a use for the warm beer sitting around at your summer barbecue.