We’ve all been there. One second you’re enjoying a delicious treat, consuming ice cream like it’s a speed trial – then you’re at a dead stop, hunched in agony cursing the flavor that brought the pain upon you. You probably know this as an ice cream headache, brain freeze or cold stimulus headaches, but scientists know it as sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. This translates to “nerve pain of the sphenopalatine ganglion”. It’s a tounge-twister, but it’s just a complicated way to explain that painful headache that accompanies cold foods. This is the dormant con lying in all frozen treats, and has taught many lessons of patience to youths (and some impatient adults) everywhere. So what’s going on really, and why does it happen? Though the direct cause has never been officially identified, we can use science to understand the probable causes and cures of this annoying phenomena.
“Ice cream headaches” are a type of headache that comes on quickly, and goes away after a few painful moments. What causes it? When you quickly consume cold beverages, ice cream or other frozen treats you affect the temperature at the back of your throat, which includes the internal carotoid artery. This artery feeds blood to the brain as well as the anterior cerebral artery, which is where brain tissue begins. The signal is sent from the bundle of nerves on the roof of the mouth. The cold sensation triggers a defense mechanism in the brain that produces the painful response as a warning to slow down. Scientists think the cause lies in the dilation and constriction of blood vessels. The constriction causes the body to react by sending a rush of warmer blood to the brain as an antidote. The rapid change this produces might be the main culprit for the pain response. These headaches are most commonly felt in the forehead, but can also take place close to the ears or behind the eyes.
Studies show that those who are susceptible to migraines are more likely to experience an ice cream headache. Luckily, there is a solution to speed up the pain and find relief. The first way is to warm the roof of your mouth with your tongue. If you do this soon enough, you might even have time to prevent the surge of blood flow to your brain. You can also drink a warm substance, such as hot chocolate or coffee to quickly cool down the palate. Another method is making a mask of your hands to cover your mouth and nose, then breath quickly trapping your breath and raising the temperature inside your mouth.
Pro tip: If you want to increase your odds of avoiding an ice cream headache, try not to let any cold substance touch the roof of your mouth.
Ice cream headaches are no fun, but let’s be honest – it’s totally worth it.