Summer is finally here. It’s time for ice-cream! YAYYYY!!!! Woops I got carried away and ate mine too quickly. Now I have a brain freeze! Hold on, why is my brain suddenly in pain if there are no pain receptors in the brain itself? Keep reading to find out what is brain freeze, why does it happen and how can we avoid it?
What is Brain Freeze?
Brain freeze, also commonly known as ice cream headache, is commonly experienced during the summer. However, it doesn’t have to be. A brain freeze, in simple terms, is a sudden onset of an extremely intense headache that also ends very quickly. Brain freezes are often associated with the consumption of cold foods and drinks, such as ice cream, iced coffee, and so much more. There are plenty of reasons why people get brain freeze, but there are also plenty of ways to stop it once it’s happening as well as strategies to avoid it for the future!
What Causes Brain Freeze?
Ice-cream headaches are caused by cold material moving across the warm upper palate (roof of the mouth) and the back of your throat, such as when you eat a popsicle quickly or gulp your milkshake. It normally happens when the weather is very hot, and the individual consumers something too fast.
Scientists are still unsure about the exact mechanism that causes this pain. Research conducted by Dr. Jorge Serrador, at Harvard Medical School, explained that until now, scientists have not been able to fully understand what causes brain freeze.
“The brain is one of the relatively important organs in the body, and it needs to be working all the time. It’s fairly sensitive to temperature, so [expanding arteries] might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm” -Jorge Serrador
The team of researchers recruited 13 healthy adult volunteers. They were asked to sip ice-cold water through a straw so that the liquid would hit their upper palate. Blood flow in their brain was monitored using a Transcranial Doppler test. They found that that the pain associated with ice-cream headaches were brought on by a rapid increase in blood flow through a major blood vessel into the brain – the anterior cerebral artery. As soon as the artery constricted, the brain-freeze pain sensation wore off.
The brain itself does not feel pain because there are no pain receptors located in the brain tissue itself. This is why neurosurgeons can operate on brain tissue without causing a patient discomfort, and, in some cases can even perform surgery while the patient is awake. The pain associated with brain freeze is sensed by receptors in the outer covering of the brain called the meninges, where the two arteries meet.
Brain freeze can affect anyone. But previous studies revealed that you may be more susceptible to ice-cream headaches or have more-severe ice-cream headaches if you’re prone to migraines. Because of this, neuroscientists think the migraines and ice-cream headaches might share some kind of common mechanism or cause, so they decided to use brain freeze to study migraines.
Headaches like migraines are difficult to study because they are unpredictable. Researchers are not able to monitor a whole one from start to finish in the lab. They can give drugs to induce migraines, but those can also have side effects that interfere with the results. Brain freeze can quickly and easily be used to start a headache in the lab, and it also ends
quickly, which makes monitoring the entire event easy.
Analyzing brain freeze may seem like silly science to some, but it’s actually very helpful in understanding other types of headaches. Here is a video summary on what causes brain freeze.
How do we get brain freeze?
1.Consuming something cold in a warm climate.
Our bodies go through homeostasis, the mechanism to return a body back to its comfortable condition, often. Brain freeze is another form of homeostasis. Our bodies don’t like an extreme change in temperature, ever. In addition to being in a warm environment, our bodies internal homeostatic temperature rests around 98.6. Meaning, you can experience brain freeze in both warm and cool climates. So, when we eat something very cold, our brains and our bodies go into a form of shock, and brain freeze is the immediate response that happens as a means to tell you to stop eating whatever you’re eating.
2.Having something cold touch the top of your palate.
As explained before, our brains can’t actually feel pain. What can feel pain, however, are our cranial nerves or nerves in general. It is believed that there are nerves connected to the roofs of our mouths that when cold touches them, the natural nerve response is the swelling and shrinking of blood vessels. As you could imagine, when something swells and shrinks this can cause a form of pain that mimics the pain that people feel when they have a throbbing headache.
You may be reading this article and thinking, “I’ve never experienced brain freeze even though I’ve done these things”. As it turns out, that is actually normal! There seems to be a huge genetic predisposition for people to get brain freezes if they are predisposed to getting migraines as well. If you get brain freezes and ask your parents if they do as well, it is very likely that both of your parents will tell you that they experience brain freezes as well. Unfortunately, there is no way to help with this factor, but there are ways to stop your brain freezes when they do occur!
How do you to stop a brain freeze once it has commenced?
1.Raise your tongue to the top of your mouth.
Unsurprisingly, since a brain freeze often occurs because your palate is too cold, pressing your tongue to the top of your mouth will heat it up, alleviating brain freeze faster than if you did nothing.
2.Put your thumb on the top of your mouth.
Shocking! This is the exact same reason that one would suggest for you to put your tongue on the top of your mouth. However, sometimes you’re when eating something cold your tongue can also get cold, thus making it harder to warm the top of your mouth. Your finger is most likely warmer than the inside of your mouth and will help instantaneously!
3.Tilt your head back for at least 10 seconds.
This trick does not consistently work for everyone, but for some people, it’s a great strategy! A change in your blood flow around your brain area can often help with the fast alleviation of discomfort. This strategy is less embarrassing to do in public so you may want to see if this is a good strategy for you!
4.Cover your mouth and nose with your hands and breathe quickly.
This will create a somewhat instantaneous warm environment for you to breathe into and it will warm the top of your mouth extremely fast. Sort of like when you’re in snow and your natural reaction is to cover your mouth with your hands. This trick will work for a brain freeze as well!
5.Spit out whatever you’re eating or drinking.
This one definitely doesn’t need an explanation, but getting rid of the problem will, obviously, get rid of the problem!
6.Take a short walk.
If you take a short walk (or a long walk, if you’re in for it!) you will catalyze blood flow all around your body. This will additionally send some added blood flow to your brain, which will alleviate the discomfort that you are feeling as a result of brain freeze. Don’t stay seated, perhaps do some jumping jacks! Any form of movement will actually help and speed up the recovery time.
7.Drink a drink that’s warmer than your cold food or drink.
Just like your brain didn’t appreciate you quickly changing your temperature by eating or drinking an extremely cold food or drink, it won’t love it if you drink a piping hot drink either. So, drink a room temperature drink to will help warm up the top of your palate but not make your body go into shock.
8.Give yourself a massage in the area that hurts.
Not everyone experiences brain freeze in the exact same areas. So, depending on where you’re feeling pain, if you rub or put pressure on that area, it will actually release some of the tension in that area. It’s sort of like when you rub a sore muscle. This in fact also works for headaches!
Okay, this may not be the most helpful tip. However, just as a brain freeze is a sudden onset of the discomfort you experience, it also goes away relatively quickly. So, if you just suck it up for a little bit, it will go away before you know it. Maybe distract yourself in the meantime so you’re not completely focusing on it. Other than that, do the other suggestions mentioned above!
How to prevent a brain freeze in the future?
It is often the speed in which you are drinking or eating that causes your brain freeze, not only the temperature of what you’re drinking. The slower you drink, the less shock you’re giving to your palate and the more likely that you can just experience the typical experience of consuming something cold.
2.Don’t drink cold drinks through a straw.
Straws make people drink must faster than if they’re drinking from a cup. So, for the same reason that you’re supposed to drink slower, try to not use a straw to help yourself slow down in the consumption of your drink.
3.But if you are going to drink through a straw, aim the straw to the side of your mouth.
This is another strategy for you to miss your palate when you’re eating. Anything that you can do to consume something without touching your palate is going to make it that much more likely that you won’t experience brain freeze.
4.Eat cold items without touching the food to your palate.
This is extremely logical as the cause of brain freeze is from the cold touching your palate. So, if you can figure out a strategy to eat or drink and miss your palate, you’re going to be good to go! Enjoy your meal without worrying about the uncomfortable effects of brain freeze.
5.Take smaller sips or bites.
If you haven’t realized by now, the common theme here is eating or drinking your cold item less quickly. So, by taking smaller sips or bites, you will make it more likely that you won’t eat or drink as quickly as you would’ve otherwise.
6.Stand by a refrigerator or something else that’s cold before eating or drinking.
As it was mentioned earlier, people are more likely to experience a brain freeze when they are in a warm climate. So, if your body is as cold as the drink you’re drinking, you’re a little less likely to get the brain freeze that you would on a beach. Although this is not always the most practical solution, it is another one!
7.Keep your drink in the front of your mouth for a while before you swallow.
As weird as this sounds, this will actually warm up your drink and not hit your palate when it’s at its coldest temperature. If you really want to enjoy the flavor of your cold drink but can’t endure the pain you get from brain freeze, this is a perfect preventative measure for you!
All in all, the biggest takeaway is that brain freeze is an extremely unpleasant and painful sensation for those of us who experience it. Luckily, even without these strategies, brain freeze doesn’t often last more than a minute. But, using a different plan of action to avoid brain freeze will help extremely. Especially since those of us that experience brain freeze, myself included, also experience migraines. Although migraines are much worse and there’s medication to help with that issue, there is no reason for anyone to experience brain freeze! Our bodies are extremely smart and evolutionarily adaptive for having brain freeze, but every logical person knows they shouldn’t be drinking something that is really cold too fast. Check out more things that can be migraine triggers.
So, just think about the pain you will inevitably experience when drinking a cold drink and use these tactics to make your life less difficult! Now that you’ve got the best tips, you’re ready for the summer. Enjoy! Feel free to leave a comment below.
Blatt MM, Falvo M, Jasien J, et al. Cerebral vascular blood flow changes during ‘brain freeze‘ FASEB Journal. 2012;26:685.4