A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Chill out, brain freeze isn’t a big deal

Two boys eating ice cream - Brain freeze

Blood vessels in the roof of your mouth and sinuses narrow during brain freeze. The short headache that follows isn’t serious.

When you feel the shooting pain in the bridge of your nose and roof of your mouth, sometimes the only thing you can do is hold your face and grimace.

What could possibly cause such an unpleasant feeling?

The culprit is your favorite ice cream treat or cold drink.

We’re talking about brain freeze or an ice cream headache. Scientifically called sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, it’s a cold-induced headache that lasts a few seconds to a few minutes. While brain freeze is uncomfortable, it’s not harmful.

“I can’t think of one instance where an ice cream headache has caused more than a few minutes of discomfort,” said Dr. Nathaniel Stepp, a Marshfield Clinic family medicine physician.

Brain freeze remains a mystery

Although it’s not a serious medical condition, we still want to know why brain freeze happens. Unfortunately, it’s not well understood.

“Brain freeze is such a harmless thing that it’s not studied a lot,” Stepp said. “Nobody’s looking for a cure because it’s not a problem.”

It may happen because blood vessels in the roof of the mouth and sinuses narrow when they’re exposed to a cold substance. Another theory is that rapid temperature change causes nerves to react, resulting in a brief headache.

You can stop a brain freeze by pressing your tongue on the roof of your mouth or taking a sip of tepid water. You may be able to avoid it by eating and drinking cold foods slowly.

A possible connection to migraines

Some research has shown that people who get migraines are more likely to experience brain freeze. The reason isn’t clear, but Stepp said he’s not surprised.

“People who get migraines are prone to getting other types of headaches,” he said.

Some researchers say ice cream headaches can trigger a migraine. However, other people report that brain freeze can stop a migraine in its early stages. This may be because migraine pain is caused by expansion of cranial blood vessels, and an ice cream headache is thought to make blood vessels narrow. It’s not guaranteed to work, but you can easily test the theory yourself. If you experience migraines, talk to your doctor about more reliable ways to prevent and treat the problem.

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