Understanding Ice Cream Headaches (Brain Freeze)

By:    Published: December 13, 2012

a a a

Nearly everyone has experienced ice cream headaches, or brain freeze, at some point in their lives, usually as children when eating an ice cream or a slushy too quickly. But now science is looking at the phenomenon of this brain freezing effect as a way to help understand migraine headaches. If you were ever curious about the phenomenon behind headaches after eating something cold too quickly, read on to learn more about ice cream headaches.

What Are They?

An ice cream headache, which is better known as brain freeze, is a sudden, sharp, stabbing headache that can occur as the result of eating cold foods, drinking cold liquids or even inhaling very cold air. According to the Mayo Clinic, the technical name for ice cream headaches is: "headache attributed to ingestion or inhalation of a cold stimulus.”

As painful as an ice cream headache can be, the symptoms are usually very short lived, which is why many continue on with the activity that is causing the pain in the first place, like eating ice cream. The symptoms of ice cream headaches include:

  • A sharp stabbing pain in the forehead, directly over or behind the eyes
  • Pain that reaches its peak intensity 30 to 60 seconds after it begins
  • The pain will rarely last longer than five minutes

There is no need to see a doctor as the pain is gone very quickly.

Causes

Ice cream headaches are caused by cold stimuli moving across the back of the roof of the mouth. The exact way that it works is still a mystery to scientists, but one theory is that the pain is a referred pain, meaning that it occurs in an area away from where it is actually caused. The pain is referred from the mouth to the head by the trigeminal nerve. This nerve is responsible for delivering information from the mouth to the brain.

Anyone can get an ice cream headache, but there are certain people who are more susceptible to them. Those who also suffer from migraines or who have had head injuries may be more susceptible to experiencing ice cream headaches, as well as experiencing more painful headaches.

Related To Migraines?

Researchers wanted to know if an ice cream headache was related in any way to migraines, and if the rapid dilation and constriction of blood vessels could possibly be used to help those who suffer from migraines. A study out of Harvard Medical School induced ice cream headaches in test subjects while using diagnostic imaging to see how the blood vessels in the brain responded.

The study found that one particular artery in the brain dilated rapidly at the onset of the pain and then constricted again as the pain decreased. The study concluded that the rapid dilation caused by the cold resulted in the pain and the constriction of the blood vessel caused the pain to decrease.

By understanding this mechanism, researchers believe that they may be able to use this information with other types of headaches, particularly migraines. The theory is that medications that cause blood vessels to constrict may help end a migraine sufferers pain once the headache has begun.

Opponents of this theory say that there is no type of migraine that is caused simply by rapid dilation of blood vessels, so just treating this one mechanism will not help. Many believe that migraines are the result of dysfunction in the brain, not vascular dysfunction because migraines are often preceded by "warning" symptoms such as food cravings, pain in the neck, fatigue and yawning.

However both supporters and opponents agree that more research is needed to determine if ice cream headaches and migraines are related, and if understanding one will provide an effective treatment for the other.

Prevention

There is no treatment for ice cream headaches because they subside so fast on their own, so the best thing that a person can do is prevent them. The pain of an ice cream headache typically will disappear as soon as the cold food or drink is swallowed, and the trigeminal nerve registers a warmer temperature and then sends that signal to the brain. This happens within seconds.

  • To prevent an ice cream headache, extremely cold foods and drinks should be consumed slowly or avoided altogether if frequent ice cream headaches are a problem.
  • If someone already is experiencing an ice cream headache, they can sip on some room temperature water or press their tongue to the roof of their mouth. As the roof of the mouth warms up, the pain will go away.
  • Another trick that some find helpful is to eat whipped cream on their ice cream. It's not clear exactly why whipped cream is effective, but it does seem to provide a buffer between the ice cream and the headache.

While ice cream headaches are certainly bothersome and painful, they are not in any way life threatening and they will go away quickly. By simply eating or drinking slowly, they can be virtually eliminated.

Sources:

More in Health A-Z

New on SymptomFind

a a a