An ice cream headache is another name for the minor pain you may experience when you eat or drink something cold. This usually feels like a brief stabbing pain in the head. The sensation is officially called a cold stimulus headache or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, but can also be informally known as “brain freeze.”
The pain is triggered when something very cold, like ice cream or a slushy drink, contacts the roof of the mouth. The risk of getting an ice cream headache is increased in hot weather and by consuming the cold food or drink quickly. The application of the cold substance suddenly increases blood flow in the brain; when the brain’s anterior cerebral artery constricts, the pain goes away.
People who suffer from migraines are more likely to experience ice cream headaches.
Ice cream headaches produce a sharp, sudden pain in the head – usually in the forehead area. The pain lasts anywhere from 20 seconds to a minute and then goes away.
It’s rare that an ice cream headache will cause pain for more than a couple minutes. If you continue to experience stabbing pains after 5 minutes, consult a medical professional.
Since ice cream headaches occur very suddenly and end very quickly, researchers have struggled to study them in enough detail to fully understand what causes them. However, the theory currently favored by experts is that sudden cold temperatures affect blood flow in the mouth and cause referred pain.
As a cold substance hits the roof of the mouth and the back of the throat, it is thought that blood vessels in this area constrict in an attempt to prevent blood from cooling down, and then rapidly dilate as the cool substance passes. Pain receptors near the blood vessels sense the discomfort associated with this sudden constriction and dilation, and carry signals to the trigeminal nerve.
The trigeminal nerve is the primary nerve which carries pain signals from the face to the brain. The brain recognizes these pain signals, but it appears that the signals come from the head, rather than the mouth. This is what causes the referred head pain associated with ice cream headache, rather than pain in the mouth and throat.
There is no treatment for ice cream headache, because it goes away on its own in a minute or two. If you know that you are susceptible to getting ice cream headaches, make sure to drink cold things slowly and, if possible, avoid contact with the roof of your mouth.
The only known way to prevent an ice cream headache is to eat frozen foods and drink cold beverages more slowly. Taking large bites or gulps is more likely to cause ice cream headache. Individuals who find that they’re particularly sensitive to ice cream headaches should avoid very cold or frozen foods and drinks completely.
It may be possible to reduce the severity of an ice cream headache by curling up the tongue and pressing the reverse side of the tongue to the roof of the mouth. The heat from the underside of the tongue may help to bring the tissues in the area back up to a normal temperature. However, since ice cream headaches tend to pass very quickly, this process may not be necessary.