This is what happens to your body when having a brain freeze

brain freeze

What is ‘brain freeze’? 

Have you ever ordered a delicious ice cream cone that you couldn’t wait to eat? If you have eaten ice cream really fast, you probably have experienced something called ‘brain freeze’. But what is it exactly and why does it happen? Find out more below.

Brain freeze

There are different names for brain freeze. Like ice cream headache, cold stimulus headache or trigeminal headache. If you really want to get technical, it’s called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. But they all mean the same: a short intense experience of pain in your head. Even though brain freeze isn’t a well-studied subject, there is a possible explanation for the cold-induced headaches. There are different types of causes. MaryAnn Mays, M.D., the vice chair of education for the Neurological Institute and a staff neurologist in the Headache Center at Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, told EatingWell that there are two types of brain freeze; internal or external. She said: “[External brain freeze] is due to external cooling of the head, such as during exposure in very cold weather, when diving into cold water or when receiving cryotherapy.” These types of headaches usually last 30 minutes or less. The ingested or inhaled type comes from a cold stimulus that is inhaled or ingested. “Rapid ingestion of crushed ice slurry is particularly likely to provoke this headache, but eating ice cream even slowly can do so.” This type of headache only lasts thirty seconds.


But why does ice cream, cold air or popsicles cause brain freeze? Regina Krel, M.D., FAHS, the director of headache medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center and an assistant professor for the Department of Neurology at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in Hackensack, New Jersey, told EatingWell: “When a cold stimulus comes in contact with the roof of your mouth, it quickly causes the blood vessels to constrict. It is thought that the vasoconstriction that occurs triggers painful stimulus causing the headache.” When you breathe in air after eating something cold, the air will be warmer and your blood vessels will dilate again. The change between constriction and dilation causes brain freeze. Krel elaborates: “There are no specific temperature thresholds that will trigger the headache, but rather just the impulse of a sudden cold stimulus.”

Not everybody gets this type of headache when inhaling or ingesting something cold. Krel explains: “Theoretically speaking, everyone can potentially get a brain-freeze headache. In reality, only about 30% to 40% of the population is susceptible to it … It is thought that those people have a more sensitive trigeminal nerve.”

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Source: EatingWell | Image: Unsplash, Ross Sokolovski