What Causes Brain Freeze? And How Can We Keep It From Ruining Our Greatest Ice Cream Moments?

What Causes Brain Freeze? And How Can We Keep It From Ruining Our Greatest Ice Cream Moments?

We took a deepish dive into the science of brain freeze—and how to avoid it altogether.

By Drew DiSabatino

The dog days of summer are in full effect, and with a scorching August up ahead for much of the country, we're all going to be looking for ways to keep cool. Which probably means we'll indulge in an icy-cold treat at some point or another. And whether that’s ice cream, a popsicle, a slushie, or just a large glass of iced tea, there’s a good chance it will also at some point or another force us to confront the terror of eating cold treats: brain freeze.

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Also known as ice cream headache, brain freeze occurs when you initially eat or drink something cold, usually ice cream or another frozen treat, causing a quick flash of pain from the roof of your mouth through the top of your head. You, of course, know this all-too-well because of all the times you too-eagerly slurped down a milkshake, only to find yourself wincing in pain.

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We feel ya, kid.

But even though we’re all very familiar with ice cream headaches, we're not all so familiar with why they occur. Or what we can do to prevent them. So we turned to the experts.

Dr. Dwayne W. Godwin, Dean of Biomedical Graduate Programs at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, explained some of the science behind brain freeze. “Brain freeze is a bit of misnomer,” Dr. Godwin told The Feast. “Rather than actually freezing your brain, it appears to be a change in temperature in the arteries that pass near the soft palate and enter the brain.”

While the exact cause is still a little uncertain, Dr. Godwin offers two possibilities, explaining that it might be a result of sudden cold constricting a cerebral artery that passes through the back of throat, or that it’s simply a reflex response triggered in the back of the throat by cold tissue.

He also explains that the pain we experience isn’t actually in our brain. “Because the brain itself feels no pain, headaches like these are mostly associated with changes in the diameter of blood vessels in the brain’s covering called the meninges,” which may be what your brain interprets as the temporary pain we all know/absolutely hate.

Another expert, Dr. Torsten Kraya of the University of Halle in Germany, shared with The Feast some of the research he’s conducted on brain freeze in the past. “We investigated the prevalence, trigger mechanisms and the characteristics of the headache in healthy subjects, [as well as] the connection between the prevalence of ice cream headache and other primary headaches, like migraines.” What Dr. Kraya’s research found was that those with a history of migraines, or a family history of severe headaches, may be more likely to suffer from brain freeze when eating cold things. (Thanks a lot, genetics.)

So what can you do to avoid it? Unfortunately, not much.

The answer, according to both Dr. Godwin and Dr. Kraya, is just to slow it down. Dr. Kraya says to eat ice cream slowly, and avoid putting enormous bites in your mouth at once. Dr. Godwin suggests taking sips of cold drinks rather than large gulps to avoid pain in the first place. If brain freeze does occur, he suggests counteracting the dramatic temperature change with a warm beverage like coffee. He also explains that “the tongue is highly vascularized and tends to stay close to body temperature,” which means that jamming your tongue onto the roof of your mouth to warm it up can sometimes help alleviate the symptoms.

Otherwise, you've just got to wait for the pain to pass.

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So good luck.

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