We’ve had them while enjoying our favorite cold desserts, making us regret we even did to begin with. The dreaded brain freeze. They usually last only 2-10 seconds, giving us an intense stabbing headache, a taste of what migraine sufferers feel but for long periods of time. Otherwise known as “ice cream headaches” since the 1930’s, estimates indicate that more than a third of the population experience it, although most commonly localized behind the forehead, they can also occur closer to the ears or behind the eyes.
Because cold stimulus headaches are so often associated with the roof of the mouth, their scientific name is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, which literally means, “nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion”, a bundle of nerves that transmits sensations from the top of the mouth (the palate) to the brain. It’s thought that the pain comes from the dilation and constriction of blood vessels in response to a cold stimulus. Upon sensing the cold, our bodies might react by sending a surge of warm blood to the brain as an antidote. The rapid change in blood flow is most likely the one to blame for the pain. Researchers have even found that people with migraines are 15% more likely to have ice cream headaches, correlating that the two types of headaches are related to the dynamics of blood flow between the palate and the brain.
Nearly 20 years ago, Joseph Hulihan of Temple University pointed out that those who suffer from ice cream headaches need not give up the confection entirely. Since the back end of the palate (the soft, fleshy part) is most likely to produce the pain, sufferers can simply try to limit the contact of cold foods with that area. “Most people arrive at such preventive measures without the advice of doctors,” he says.
So as you probably already know, don’t chow down that ice cream cone or Slurpee as fast as you can, savor it slowly. As with many other things relating to our physiology, the key is to give yourself time to adjust to changes, otherwise it stresses the body, and you might not like the natural reaction it takes to fix the situation.