Brain freeze can occur when someone quickly ingests cold food or drink. Also known as an ice cream headache, brain freeze is experienced by between 5.9 and 74 percent of adults and 38 to 79 percent of children. Some studies show that it's more common in women than in men. Despite how common it is, the exact cause remains unknown. Some people experience the sensation infrequently, while others may have pain every time they eat or drink something cold.
The technical term for brain freeze is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. The most common cause is eating ice cream. The pain appears a few seconds after rapid ingestion, peaking between 30 and 60 seconds later, and then receding in 10 to 20 seconds more. This stabbing or aching pain is usually located in the midfrontal region of the brain, but can also occur in the temporal region.
Though they seem to affect the same parts of the brain, there have been conflicting studies regarding whether brain freeze and migraines are related. One study found that brain freeze occurred in 93 percent of people who experienced migraines and only 31 percent of the control group, while another study found the opposite is true.
Scientists are not sure what causes brain freeze. One theory is that when we ingest ice cream or another cold food or drink and the substance moves across the top of the mouth, blood vessels constrict to prevent a loss of body heat. As the body adapts to the sudden change in temperature, normal blood flow resumes, and the pain resolves.
One study demonstrated that brain freeze developed in the temporal and orbital regions on one side of the head when ice was placed against the palate on that side. When the ice was applied midline, the pain occurred on both sides. This experiment also showed that the reaction could only be elicited in hot weather, a result recreated by a later study.
Other studies show that brain freeze does occur in cold weather, even when the subjects ate ice cream at a slower pace. This study also showed that those who ate ice cream fast were about three times more likely to develop brain freeze than those who ate slowly. The results relating to cold weather in this study directly contradict other studies, demonstrating how little scientists know about this phenomenon.
Some researchers believe brain freeze is mediated by the trigeminal nerve. One study used a transcranial Doppler to visualize a sudden and dramatic increase in blood flow during brain freeze. The vasodilation and the pain resolved with the ingestion of warm water. The trigeminal nerve relays sensory information from the face and head to the brain and may play a role in this process.
Although extremely uncommon, brain freeze may coincide with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation or an irregular heartbeat. One study examined a rare case where a patient developed both brain freeze and atrial fibrillation after ingesting an ice-cold drink. This phenomenon was reported a few times in the literature, though the idea that atrial fibrillation can result from swallowing has been around since the 1930s.
Some scientists believe brain freeze is an example of referred pain. Tiny muscles around the blood vessels in the roof of the mouth tighten and relax suddenly, causing pain in another area of the head. Referred pain in the body is common. Examples include heart attack pain in the shoulder or jaw and pain in the shoulder blade from a ruptured spleen.
Brain freeze is self-limiting but can be very painful and intense. To alleviate it, remove the cold food or drink from your mouth if possible. Drinking something warm or pressing the tongue against the roof of the mouth to warm the palate can also help. To prevent brain freeze, try taking smaller bites or sips of any cold food or drink.
Stimulation of the trigeminal nerve is believed to cause migraine. Because brain freeze obstructs cerebral blood flow and also seems to be related to the trigeminal nerve, inducing brain freeze may interrupt the process that causes migraines. Although more studies are needed, anecdotal evidence suggests that this approach works for some migraine sufferers.
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