Why do we get brain freeze? Experts explain

Your body has millions of parts working together every second of every day. In this series, Dr. Jen Caudle, a board-certified family medicine physician and an associate professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, explains how the body works — and all of its quirks.

Some call it brain freeze. Others call it an ice cream headache. You might hear a doctor call it a cold stimulus headache or refer to it by its scientific name, sphenopalatine ganglion neuralgia. But there’s no mistaking that brief, intense pain behind the forehead and in the temples that occurs after eating or drinking something too cold too fast, Dr. Jen Caudle tells Yahoo Life.

While ice cream is the most obvious trigger, it’s not the only one. Research suggests that drinking ice water may set off more frequent and intense but shorter brain freeze episodes than, say, eating ice cubes. But brain freeze can also happen when we breathe in air in a cold environment.

So why do we get brain freeze? Experts break it down.

What causes brain freeze?

The reason we experience brain freeze after having cold food or drinks or breathing cold air is still under debate.

Catherine Ham, a neurologist at VCU Health in Richmond, Va., tells Yahoo Life that brain freeze is our body's response to cold triggers in an effort to warm up our mouths quickly. She explains that the body increases blood flow to the mouth by opening the blood vessels. “The rapid change in blood flow activates the nerves that cause pain most commonly in our foreheads and temples,” she says. The result? Brain freeze.

Another explanation, according to Caudle, is that we get brain freeze when the internal carotid artery — the artery at the back of the throat that sends blood to the brain — experiences a sudden temperature change when we drink or eat something cold.

Caudle also explains that, despite the name, “your brain isn’t actually feeling pain. The pain you’re feeling when you get brain freeze is actually from a layer of receptor cells in the outer covering of the brain, called the meninges. This is where the internal carotid artery and the anterior cerebral artery actually meet. When the cold hits, these arteries contract, sending pain signals to the brain.”

How can you ease brain freeze?

“Brain freeze usually stops seconds to a couple of minutes after avoiding the cold stimulus,” points out Ham. “Some people find rubbing their tongue over the roof of the mouth or breathing into their hands can help warm up the area more quickly.”

If it’s a common problem, Ham advises that you “stop eating or drinking the cold substances that cause it to begin with.” And if brain freeze happens from breathing in cold air — a common problem in winter — wearing a scarf or mask around the lower face and neck can help, she says.

How can you prevent it?

“The faster you eat or drink cold substances, the more likely you are to trigger a brain freeze,” says Ham. So, slow down when you’re having cold beverages and food.

“Since many of the cold things that cause these headaches are so delicious — like ice cream — it can be hard to take our time when eating them,” says Ham. “But this is the best way to avoid a brain freeze.”

Interestingly, humans are not the only ones who get brain freeze. According to Ham, “There is evidence that animals like cats can get brain freeze when they eat tasty cold treats too fast.”

Is brain freeze ever a sign of something serious?

“It is unusual that a typical brain freeze headache would be a sign of a serious condition,” Ham says. But she advises that it’s best to seek medical care if a headache or brain freeze lasts longer than a couple of minutes or is happening without a clear trigger.

Ham also recommends getting immediate medical attention if you have headaches that come with vision or speech changes or other unusual symptoms.

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