What Happens to Your Body When You Have a Brain Freeze

If only that ice cream came with a cherry on top. Ouch!

You can't be the only one who has been so tempted by Ben & Jerry's that you dive into the pint with a spoonful too much, too fast. Brain freeze—aka ice cream headache, cold stimulus headache, trigeminal headache or sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia—is a short-term form of intense head pain that many humans have experienced.

So what's really going on inside your brain and body when your head pounds with that unique form of pain? And could it be a sign of a larger issue? We spoke with brain experts to find out.

What Is Brain Freeze, and Why Does It Happen?

Since this is a very short-term and not extremely common form of headache, it's not well studied, confirms MaryAnn Mays, M.D., the vice chair of education for the Neurological Institute and a staff neurologist in the Headache Center at Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.

We do know, however, that there are a couple of different categories of brain freeze. Only one is of the typical "ice cream" variety. Mays says that the International Headache Society has a classification system for different "flavors" of headaches. Under the secondary headaches category—which means the headache is caused by something besides the body itself—there is a cold-stimulus headache.

Brain-freeze headaches are brought on by a cold stimulus applied externally to the head or ingested or inhaled.

  • External: "This is due to external cooling of the head, such as during exposure in very cold weather, when diving into cold water or when receiving cryotherapy," Mays says. Those suffering from external brain freeze may develop intense, short-lasting, stabbing headaches in the middle-front portion of their heads; although the pain can occur on both sides near the temples or manifest in the front and behind the eyes, Mays adds. These headaches usually last 30 minutes or less.
  • Ingested or inhaled: This is the typical ice cream headache brought on by and occurring immediately after a cold stimulus comes in contact with the roof of your mouth or the back of your throat. It can be triggered by consuming cold food or drink or inhaling cold air. "Rapid ingestion of crushed ice slurry is particularly likely to provoke this headache, but eating ice cream even slowly can do so," Mays adds.

Be it ice cream, sorbet, frigid air, ice cubes, popsicles or slushies, brain-freeze headaches are most often of the ingested or inhaled variety, confirms Regina Krel, M.D., FAHS, the director of headache medicine at Hackensack University Medical Center and an assistant professor for the Department of Neurology at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine in Hackensack, New Jersey.

"When a cold stimulus comes in contact with the roof of your mouth, it quickly causes the blood vessels to constrict. It is thought that the vasoconstriction that occurs triggers painful stimulus causing the headache," Krel says.

an illustration of a brain inside an ice cube
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External or internal, this cooling and narrowing of the blood vessels, paired with a warmer stimulus (often the air you breathe), results in a widening of the blood vessels. A rapid change between constricted and dilated vessels in the palate results in an intense feeling we know as "brain freeze."

Brain freeze is typically isolated and very short-term, unlike other types of headaches that tend to trigger additional symptoms, such as nausea, dizziness or fatigue. Most cases of brain freeze subside within two minutes.

"There are no specific temperature thresholds that will trigger the headache, but rather just the impulse of a sudden cold stimulus. Theoretically speaking, everyone can potentially get a brain-freeze headache. In reality, only about 30% to 40% of the population is susceptible to it," Krel says. "It is thought that those people have a more sensitive trigeminal nerve."

Mays says that people with a migraine history, people with that sensitive nerve and children (who haven't quite learned the importance of pacing themselves with that ice cream cone) may be slightly more likely to get brain freeze.

Should You Be Worried About Brain Freeze?

If you're experiencing a brief brain-freeze headache, a doctor's visit is rarely necessary, Krel and Mays agree.

Brain freeze typically lasts 30 seconds or less and certainly less than 5 minutes or so (ingested/inhaled) or 30 minutes (external).

"If the headaches are lasting longer than five minutes, or if they are occurring in the absence of consuming something cold or frosty," Krel says, or without coming into contact with a cold stimulus, "this might be a sign to seek medical attention."

Mays says that a typical brain freeze is not a sign of other health issues nor a sign of anything worrisome.

If the headaches are associated with other symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting or impaired vision, though, or if you're experiencing brain freeze so much it's impacting your quality of life, you should check in with your primary care doctor.

Can You Prevent Brain Freeze?

The absolute best way to prevent a brain-freeze headache is to consume cold foods and drinks at a slower pace or take smaller bites, Krel advises. For cold drinks, consider sipping straight from the glass rather than through a straw, Mays says, since the straw tends to position the beverage right to the roof of your mouth.

To "cure" or alleviate a brain-freeze headache, all you need to do is counteract the cold with warmth. Placing your tongue on the roof of your mouth will warm the area, and cause your blood vessels to dilate, alleviating the pain. Mays suggests that you can also try drinking warm water or covering your mouth and nose with your hands and breathing rapidly to bring warm air through nasal passages.

The Bottom Line

Brain freeze is a fairly common, painful, yet passing form of headache that can be caused by exposure to something cold externally to the head or internally within the mouth. It should "heal" itself within a few minutes, but if it lasts a long time or feels like it's putting your life on freeze, too, contact your medical care team.

No need to avoid chilly things altogether. Just keep in mind that the best way to prevent future brain freeze events is to try to take your time with that milkshake, frozen drink, ice pop or soft serve.

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