What the Heck Is Brain Freeze, Anyway?

Ice cream is a common cause of brain freeze, which is why it's sometimes called an "ice cream headache."
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Picture this: It's the middle of summer, and you're happily staying cool by slurping down an ice pop when suddenly you're struck behind the eyes with an intense, penetrating pain.

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Anyone who's ever battled brain freeze, also known as an ice cream headache, has probably pondered why guzzling a glass of cold water or polishing off a popsicle can produce an unexpected jolt of pain.

Here, Benjamin​ Emanuel, DO, associate professor of neurology at Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, shares the scoop on ice cream headaches, including why they happen, how to prevent them and what to do to ease the freeze when they hit.

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So, What Causes Brain Freeze?

While it may have always seemed like a mystery, there is a pretty logical scientific explanation behind brain freeze. In fact, there's even a medical term for it: sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.

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Here's the brain freeze 411:

When you eat or drink something icy cold, the temperature of your palate plummets and the blood vessels there constrict from the cooling, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

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Almost immediately after, the blood vessels dilate, and blood rushes into the area as your body tries to regulate its temperature (read: warm itself). This sudden dilation of arteries is transmitted to the brain as pain through the trigeminal nerve, which branches into the middle of the face and forehead, Dr. Emanuel says.

Who Can Get Brain Freeze?

Just about anyone. But children (who are more likely to slurp down an ice cream in record speed) and people prone to migraine have a higher risk of experiencing a cold-induced headache, per the Cleveland Clinic.

Can You Prevent Brain Freeze?

The only definitive way to prevent an ice cream headache is to stop snacking on cold foods like ice cream, Dr. Emanuel says. But if an ice cream-free life doesn't appeal to you (same here!), simply try slowing down the pace when you eat or drink something cold.

One smart strategy involves taking smaller bites or sips and swishing them around in your mouth to warm them up before swallowing, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.

While there's no guarantee it'll work, the idea is to steer clear of the sudden, extreme temperature shifts in the mouth and throat that trigger brain freeze.

How to Manage Brain Freeze

Despite your best intentions to sip your slushie slowly, you might still be struck with a cold stimulus headache. But here's the good news: Brain freeze is brief (it typically lasts less than five minutes in 98 percent of people, per Johns Hopkins Medicine).

Still, there are a few things you can do to speed up your recovery and thaw the freeze, per Dr. Emanuel:

  • Press your tongue or thumb to the roof of your mouth
  • Drink a glass of room-temperature water

Both will help transfer heat to your palate and return the temperature of your mouth back to normal, Dr. Emanuel says.

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