Neuroscientist explains the science of the ‘brain freeze’
Summer brings picnics, outdoor barbecues, poolside lounging, but also brings the not-so-pleasant things that harsh the fun vibes, such as ants, mosquitos, and sunburns. Even sweet, cooling delights like ice cream and carbonated slushies can deliver an unpleasant surprise — the dreaded “brain freeze,” a sudden, splitting headache.
But what is a “brain freeze,” and how can we enjoy a refreshingly cold treat without having to endure one? Virginia Tech neuroscientist Kristofer Rau explains the science beyond these quick-onset headaches and how to avoid them — or at least make them go away faster.
Q: What is a “brain freeze” and what causes it?
“‘Brain freeze’ or ‘ice cream headache’ is the occasional intense pain you feel in your head when drinking or eating something that is very cold. One important function of your brain is to make sure that certain areas of your body remain in specific temperature ranges. Your head is particularly important, so the normal response to a cold stimulus inside the head is to try to warm that area back up. It does this by rapidly increasing the flow of warm blood through the blood vessels in the roof of your mouth. This sudden expansion of blood vessels is sensed by nerve cells, but unfortunately the brain interprets the rapid expansion as something that is painful.”
Q: Why does it hurt so much?
“The suddenness of the expansion in the blood vessels causes a burst of activity in the nerve endings in the roof of your mouth, and that intensity is interpreted by the brain as something that we really need to pay attention to and do something about immediately. Most of the regular headaches that we get are also caused by changes in the size of our blood vessels that are similarly detected by nerve endings, but these are more gradual changes.”
Q: How harmful is a “brain freeze”?
“Although pain is highly unpleasant, it is your brain's natural way of making sure that we protect our body, even though in this case a temporary cold stimulus is not going to cause any actual damage. A ‘brain freeze’ is not harmful and should go away within a few seconds to a minute or so.”
Q: What can you do to counter a “brain freeze”?
“Everyone is susceptible to getting a ‘brain freeze’. If you do get a ‘brain freeze’, you can either drink something that is room temperature, or you can push your tongue against the roof of your mouth to quickly warm the area back up. You can also decrease the chance of getting a ‘brain freeze’ by eating or drinking cold items more slowly, so that your body has time to adjust.”
Q: How can you avoid one altogether?
“The only way to completely prevent having one altogether is to avoid consuming anything that is cold. Summer without ice cream and popsicles seems quite sad though, so it is probably worth the risk of the occasional ‘brain freeze’.”
An assistant professor with the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine’s Department of Basic Science Education, Kristofer Rau is a neuroscientist with expertise in molecular biology, electrophysiology, and behavior assessments. He has a strong interest in science outreach and advocacy. Read more about him here.
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