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October 29, 2009

Why Does Brain Freeze Occur With Eating Ice Cream and Other Cold Treats?


Believe it or not, this has been the topic of research in the past and even has a medical diagnosis called "sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia". To sum it up, there are two theories behind this phenomenon:

1) Blood vessel phenomenon: Blood vessels constrict when any part of the body is exposed to cold temperature and dilates when it gets hot. This simple fact can be applied to the biological cause of brain freeze as well. Upon contact with ice, the blood vessels in the roof of the mouth begin to constrict, making the vessels in the head to expand, and thus creating a headache.

2) Trigeminal nerve factor: The trigeminal nerve, or cranial nerve 5 (CN5), is responsible for facial sensation. As a result of eating cold foods, this nerve in the palate of the mouth becomes overstimulated. Stimulation of the nerve causes neurons to fire pain signals to the brain, producing a headache.

Is there a cure? Avoid the culprit cold treat that triggers the pain or eat is slowly. Should you suffer from a brain freeze or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia, drink warm fluid or just wait!

References:
Ice cream headache--site, duration, and relationship to migraine

Ice cream evoked headaches (ICE-H) study: randomised trial of accelerated versus cautious ice cream eating regimen
Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids. Google+ Christopher Chang, MD Bio

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