I scream, you scream, we all scream in pain when we get brain freeze. We all know the horrible feeling of eating ice cream too fast. Your mouth goes numb, then a wave of pain stretches across your head. But what’s really happening to our bodies during a brain freeze?
Our Bodies vs. Frozen Treats
The roofs of our mouths are full of blood vessels, capillaries, and nerve fibers that detect pain. When we eat ice cream or any kind of very cold food or drink, the blood vessels and capillaries in our palates constrict. Eat these types of treats too quickly, or on an especially warm day, and the constriction of the vessels occurs so suddenly that the nerve fibers register pain.
The trigeminal nerve (one of the major facial nerves) then sends the pain message straight to the brain. The brain processes that something painful is happening but can’t tell exactly where, so the sensation registers across the face. Eventually, we experience the pain in the form of a sudden-onset headache.
Help us, science.
It’s taken a lot of time and research for scientists to figure out this phenomenon. A study published in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s (FASEB) journal explains it all.
Researchers recruited 13 volunteers and asked them to sip ice-cold water through a straw. Then they monitored the blood flow in the subjects’ brains. During the study, subjects raised their hands when they began to feel the effects of brain freeze.
Researchers noticed an increase in blood flow to the anterior cerebral artery while the brain freeze occurred. Scientists believe this excess blood flow is part of a temperature regulatory system in place to keep the brain functioning in a warm environment despite extreme cold. The increased blood flow builds pressure in the skull, resulting in a headache.
“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,” wrote researchers. “So vasodilation might be moving warm blood inside tissue to make sure the brain stays warm.”
Have no fear—there is a cure. You can press your tongue to the roof of your mouth, drink something warm, or simply wait a few minutes for the artery to return to normal on its own.
Brain freeze is actually helpful.
This new information is helping scientists better understand the physiology of headaches and migraines, hopefully leading to more effective treatments.
“We can’t easily give people migraines or a cluster headache, but we can easily induce brain freeze without any long-term problems,” wrote Dr. Dwayne Godwin, a neuroscientist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “We can learn something about headache mechanisms and extend that to our understanding to develop better treatments for patients.”
The research published in The FASEB Journal has already found that migraine sufferers are more likely to experience brain freeze than those who never have migraines. Hopefully, research like this will help doctors better treat the pain migraine sufferers deal with on a regular basis. The irony is pretty sweet when you think about it: A painful-but-temporary headache could lead to a cure for horrible chronic migraines.