The experience is one of the cruelest nature can produce. You take a bite of tasty ice cream, delicious milkshake, or a refreshing slushie. Just as you are reveling in the delightful taste, your brain is assaulted with a vice-like pain that instantly makes you forget the pleasure of just a moment before. Instead of enjoying a yummy snack, you are clutching your head and praying for the blinding pain to subside.
You have just experienced a phenomenon that some call a “brain freeze.” Almost everyone has encountered it, but what is it, why does it happen, and can anything be done about it?
Scientists have been studying this unpleasant experience for decades. Naturally, anything that warrants scientific inquiry needs a fancier name than “brain freeze.” The scientific name is “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.” If that is too much of a mouthful, you can refer to it as a “stimulus headache.”
Whatever name you choose for the painful experience, the cause is the same. It happens when an extremely cold substance quickly hits the roof of the mouth, causing the capillaries to constrict, followed by an equally quick rewarming when warm air is reintroduced to the mouth. This warming causes a widening of the blood vessels known as vasodilation.
The effect is a migraine-like experience. Curiously, there is a correlation between people who suffer from migraine headaches and those who are more prone to brain freeze. Scientists are studying how the contraction and widening of blood vessels in the brain trigger headaches in hopes of offering some relief to sufferers.
While the cure for run-of-the-mill migraines is still a work in process, relief from brain freeze is quite simple. The moment you start to experience a brain freeze, press your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The heat from your tongue will transfer heat and energy to your sinuses behind your nose, which will then warm the nerve bundles that cause brain freeze. Keep your tongue firmly against the roof of your mouth until the pain is gone.
From that point forward, slow down with whatever it is you are eating. You will enjoy your icy treat a lot more if you savor the experience, rather than running the risk of another bout of sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.