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How to Ease Brain Freeze

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Two young women eating ice cream; one touching her painful head

On a hot summer day, there’s nothing like taking a big gulp of ice-cold water or a slushy beverage, or going for a big mouthful of ice cream. Great way to cool down, right?

But then it hits you: a bolt of intense pain in the temples, forehead or behind the eyes or nose.

Brain freeze, otherwise known as ice cream headache, is technically known as cold neuralgia or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Big words for a short — but-agonizing — episode.

The Scoop on Ice Cream Headache

What causes ice cream headaches? Nothing serious, says Wojtek Mydlarz, assistant professor of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at Johns Hopkins. He explains:

“There are several theories about what makes this happen. The one that probably makes the most sense is that when you eat or drink a large quantity of very cold food or liquid, you drop the temperature of the palate (the roof of your mouth) pretty substantially. The blood vessels automatically constrict—it’s a survival reflex to maintain your body’s core temperature.”

After the squeeze, Mydlarz says, the blood vessels open up — quickly. “This rebound dilation sends a pain signal to the brain through a nerve called the trigeminal nerve, whose upper branch extends into the midface and forehead,” he says.

Mydlarz says ice cream headache is an example of “referred pain” — when changes happening in one part of the body signal pain in another. In this case, the tiny muscles around the blood vessels in the palate are tightening and relaxing suddenly, but the sensation is experienced higher up in the head.

The Migraine Connection

Nauman Tariq, director of the Johns Hopkins Headache Center, says that research shows migraine sufferers have a higher likelihood of experiencing brain freeze. “The pain of brain freeze headaches is more intense and sharp than that of migraine,” he says. “Both headaches can occur in the forehead and result in throbbing pain.

“But, thankfully, in 98 percent of patients, brain freeze headaches last less than five minutes.”

How to Ease Brain Freeze

If you get nailed by brain freeze, act fast. If possible, remove the cold food or drink from your mouth, and press your tongue or your thumb against the roof of your mouth. Drinking warm water can help, too.

Mydlarz (whose favorite ice cream flavors include coffee and chocolate-cherry) recommends taking smaller bites or sips of cold food and drink, and warming them up in your mouth before swallowing.

Tariq notes that grabbing an aspirin or acetaminophen may not be worth it. “In the majority of people, brain freeze headaches are so short lived that by the time pain medications kick in, the headache will be over.”

That is the only good thing about brain freeze: its brevity. By the time you take steps to counteract the pain, it is likely to be over and gone, and you’re back to enjoying your summer day—and with luck, more ice cream.

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