What Causes Brain Freeze?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
May 29, 2019

Gulp an ice-cream or ice water too quickly and you may get a fast headache. What causes brain freeze? It comes from your body’s resistance to rapid change.

You may remember the sensation from childhood: a sharp pain that lasts seconds or at most two minutes. Maybe your children are always gulping down an icy slurpee too quickly and then complaining that their head hurts.

What is brain freeze?

Brain freeze — also called ice-cream headache — usually happens when the weather is hot. The heat and mild dehydration overwhelm you and you guzzle or gulp the slurpee — and give yourself an intense head ache.

The pain usually lasts seconds, or up to two minutes, according to Amaal Starling, MD, a neurologist and headache expert at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Other names for this phenomenon: cold-stimulus headache or trigeminal headache. The most technical name is sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.


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What causes brain freeze?

The cold hits the roof of the mouth and causes blood vessels to dilate and contract, resisting the sudden change, Starling says.

Why don’t you feel the activity in your mouth? Nerves from the head, face, neck, and mouth all meet at your brainstem in an area called the trigeminal cervical complex (TCC) Just behind the bony part of your nose is a group of nerve cells, the sphenopalatine ganglion (SPG), which feeds into this area. The SPG interprets the activity of the blood vessels in response to the cold as pain. You feel it in your head because the TCC usually responds to a headache, Starling says.

How to prevent brain freeze

To avoid brain freeze, allow your mouth to warm up cold food or drink by keeping it in the front before you swallow. Choose a narrow straw for an icy slushie. In other words, don’t gulp or guzzle like an overheated kid.

If you feel the reaction coming on, press your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The goal is to warm up the sinuses behind your nose and then the SPG. You could also drink some warm water.

You might be more prone to these headaches if you suffer from migraines, but they’re common. In a small experiment with middle-schoolers in Canada, about 79 percent said they’d had a headache from eating ice cream at least once. The Canadian students reported brain freeze even eating ice cream slowly in cold weather, but fast consumption in hot weather makes it more likely.

In a study of more than 8,000 teens in Taiwan, boys were more likely to get an ice cream headache than girls, but only 41 percent said they’d ever had one.

That’s not all

Oddly, you may be able to interrupt a migraine by stimulating the SPG, so people sometimes deliberately give themselves brain freeze — a fast jolt — to get relief from a migraine, which can typically last from four to 72 hours.

 “I eat two popsicles every time one of my headaches start, and that makes them go away and I feel great!,” one woman wrote online. Other methods people say work for them: hold ice chips to the roof of your mouth, down a frozen coffee or cola shake if caffeine helps you, run cold water over your head, or fill a sink with ice water and dunk your head in a few times.


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May 29, 2019

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN