Most of us have experienced it… We take a big bite of ice cream or drink something very cold… and wham!
We get an excruciating, stabbing pain in the front of our head.
It’s called “brain freeze” or “ice-cream headache.” It lasts for several seconds, is harmless, and then vanishes.1
We might not think much about it after it goes away. But it turns out that scientists have closely studied the phenomena for years. They think it might hold the key to finding an effective treatment for migraine headaches.2
Harvard Medical School researchers recently discovered that brain freeze is a self-defense mechanism.
They recruited 13 healthy adult volunteers. They had them sip ice cold water through a straw, so that the liquid would hit their upper palate.
At the same time, they monitored blood flow in the subjects’ brains using a Doppler ultrasound imaging. This allowed scientists to see exactly what happens during a brain freeze.
They found that the cold drink rapidly changed the temperature of the carotid artery. This artery feeds oxygen-rich blood to the brain. When the temperature drops, a warning signal is sent to the brain that something is wrong.
The brain reacts by quickly dilating arteries to capture as much oxygen as possible. This raises brain pressure, which in turns causes sharp pain.
As soon as the temperature in the mouth returns to normal, the brain no longer feels threatened. The arteries constrict. And the pain disappears.
The Harvard team found that migraine sufferers are far more likely to suffer brain freeze than people who don’t get migraines.3
They concluded that brain freeze and migraine headaches “may be related to how reactive your nerves are. It may be related to anatomical placement” of arteries.
The researchers published their work in The FASEB Journal.4
Your Brain Hates Change
Dr. Dwayne Godwin is a neuroscientist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Salem, N.C. Like the Harvard researchers, he has also been studying brain freeze.5
He says it is good thing. It is sign that your arteries are flexible and your nerves are responsive.
“One thing the brain doesn’t like is for things to change, and brain freeze is a mechanism to prevent that,” Dr. Godwin said.
Two Tricks to Stop Brain Freeze…and Migraines
One study found that brain freeze affects up to 74% of adults and 79% of children. It is hereditary.6
Women are far more likely to experience brain freeze than men. The same is true for migraines.
If you experience brain freeze frequently, obviously it makes sense to avoid gulping super-cold foods and drinks. But researchers suggest two other strategies to short-circuit the pain:
- As soon as the pain starts, press your tongue against the roof of your mouth. This will help warm the area and cause arteries to return to normal size.
- Cover your mouth and nose with your hands and breathe rapidly. This increases the flow of warm air to the palate.
If you suffer from migraines, the same principle can work. The Mayo Clinic recommends that when you feel a headache coming on, place a heat pack on the area of your head that hurts.7
It can stop the headache from progressing into a full-blown migraine.