“I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” When Howard Johnson, Billy Moll and Robert A. King penned this novelty song in the late 1920s, the screaming they referenced was a cheer among students at a fictional college in a “land of ice and snow, up among the Eskimo.” For anyone who has gobbled up an ice cream treat a little too quickly, those screams very well may speak to the sharp headache that often comes from consuming frozen foods too quickly.
Identifying ‘brain freeze/ice cream headache’
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center neuroscientist Dwayne Goodwin, Ph.D., explained in a 2013 news release that the sudden, short headache that occurs when eating or drinking something very cold, which most people refer to as ‘brain freeze,’ is actually called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. There are several theories why brain freeze occurs. One theory suggests that when a person eats or drinks a large quantity of very cold food or liquid, the temperature of his or her palate decreases considerably. The blood vessels in this area automatically constrict to maintain the body’s core temperature before reopening quickly. This causes a rebound dilation that sends a pain signal to the brain through the trigeminal nerve, which is located in the middle of the face and forehead. Although the constriction and dilation of blood vessels occurs in the palate, the pain is felt elsewhere, a phenomenon known as ‘referred pain.’
Alleviating the shock
Now that people understand the starting point for brain freeze, and what causes it, they might want to make a few changes to how they consume cold foods and beverages. Eric Fredette, a long-time ‘Flavor Guru’ for Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, says one way to stop brain freeze is to stir up the ice cream to warm it slightly.
Dr. Stephani Vertrees, a headache specialist and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine, advises eating cold food much more slowly so that your mouth can warm it up as well. Another tip is to keep the food or beverage in the front of your mouth. Cold foods in the back of the mouth will stimulate brain freeze.
When consuming ice cream by spoon, Fredette further suggests flipping the spoon upside down so that the ice cream hits the tongue rather than the upper palate when spooned into the mouth.