Moment of Science: Brain Freeze

Even some animals get them, but not all humans do
Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 5:46 PM EDT
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As ice cream shops close around the city, many are lining up to get their last taste of summer... and maybe their last “ice cream headache” of the season! Let’s explore the science behind getting a brain freeze.

The medical term is “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia”... and if your brain froze just looking at that, you’re not alone. This weird sensation all has to do with regulating your body temperature. When you’re eating an icy treat, blood vessels in the mouth and throat contract, then open up to try and compensate for the cold. That presses in on the nerve fibers there, and causes the pain... but why do you feel it in your head more than your mouth? It’s called “referred pain”, similar to how those suffering from a heart attack might report a sensation in their left shoulder or arm instead. The “trigeminal nerve” sends a memo up the chain, but the boss up top is still trying to figure out what’s happening. Your brain itself can’t technically feel pain -- it’s the receptors in the outer layers called the “meninges” that really make you feel that deep freeze near the front of your head.

At least in this case of referred pain, there’s no cause for alarm. 98% of brain freezes are over and done with in 5 minutes or less -- though chronic migraine sufferers may have a worse reaction. Waiting it out is often your best defense, but pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth can help warm it back up and make the pain go away quicker... just maybe go easy on the iced drink next time.

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