University of Southern Indiana

The Science of Brain Freeze

By Dr. Brent Summers, Associate Professor of Biology

What comes to mind when you hear the phrase brain freezeFor me it’s an image of sitting in a major league ballpark, taking that first large bite of an ice cream cone. As the cold ice cream hits the roof of the mouth and the back of the throat, there is an almost immediate stabbing pain and headache. The headache, which is often centered around the back of the eyes, slowly subsides but comes again if more cold food or drink is consumed.  

Scientists have discovered two primary reasons that interact to cause brain freeze headaches (scientifically known as sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia).

1. First, when a cold stimulus (cold stimulus headache is in fact the medical term for brain freeze) is applied to the back of the throat and roof of the mouth, it interacts with a number of blood vessels and nerves in that area of the head.   

One in particular that is affected is the anterior cerebral artery. Research shows that this artery constricts when the cold stimulus is removed, thus reducing the headache. It is thought that the headache is due to an increased blood flow through this vessel which runs very close to the back of the eye sockets.   

2. A second reason for the brain freeze is the interaction of the cold stimulus with a nerve in the neck and head called the Trigeminal nerve. When the Trigeminal nerve is triggered by the cold stimulus it causes a rapid increase in blood pressure, followed by a very rapid decrease.   

These rapid changes in blood pressure are thought to contribute to the brain freeze sensation. Regardless of how the headache occurs, it is temporary in duration and appears to cause no lasting problems.   

Many people experience brain freeze, although many are not as susceptible. Perhaps it’s just nature’s way of telling us to slow down and enjoy our cold treats. So, the next time you are about to take a big gulp of that icy drink or bite of ice cream, you may want to take your time and avoid the freeze!

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